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Science & Environment

The Odor Of Political Attraction

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

What is that scent you're wearing - Chanel No. 5 or McCain-Palin 2008? Pete Hatemi, an associate professor at Penn State University, is co-author of a new study in the American Journal of Political Science that says people of similar political persuasions may feel they're attracted to each other's principles, but it may actually be something more elemental.

PETE HATEMI: Twenty of our subjects of strong liberals and strong conservatives would wear these Johnson & Johnson pads under their arms for 24 hours so we could collect their scent, collect their sweat and put it in these Petri dishes and use for another 140 or 50 subjects to then rate the smell of those as attractive and unattractive.

And it came out that there was a relationship, a correlation between what people found attractive was the more similarity in their ideology. So conservatives would tend to find the smell of other conservatives more attractive than they would, let's say, liberals.

SIMON: But where does this information lead? Instead of asking somebody you just met, say, do you like the Affordable Care Act, maybe you should just lean over and take a whiff.

HATEMI: Right. Everyone should start smelling each other. No (laughter). You know, it's those things about sciences that we're really trying to learn about the systems that we use as humans to take in all the information of our world, like how a smell brings a memory back. Even thinking of the smell of apple pie makes a lot of people think of home. It triggers - it goes right to your hippocampi to where your memory's stored and elicits emotional responses. And so if there's something to take away from this is that these systems are operating. And we're only starting to learn about them. You know, that little feeling that you get when you're sitting across the table from someone for the first time, and you find them really attractive. There's something about them that interests you, and you want to know more. Some of it's what they're saying, certainly some of it's how they look. Some of it's very, like, their smell. It's changing your mood to make you just a little more interested.

SIMON: Ha. What if you've got a cold? That's Pete Hatemi, co-author of a new study, "Assortative Mating On Ideology Could Operate Through Olfactory Cues." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.