Jan 312013

I’ve been noticing more and more lately that headlines don’t match the contents of their articles.

This Rape Infographic Is Going Viral. Too Bad It’s Wrong” ACTUALLY says “There are some interesting ways in which the situation is both better and worse than this infographic makes out – here, learn some more about rape and how it’s studied.” But that’s not a good headline.

And “Study: How We Lose Our Virginity Shapes Our Entire Sexual Life” is ACTUALLY about a study of college students and the relationship between their present day sex and their first-time sex. It turns out people who report negative first time experiences also report negative present-day sex, concluding it “may set the pattern for years to come.” Which is different from “OUR ENTIRE SEXUAL LIFE,” don’t you think? (My opinion is that this is due to the “Story of Us” phenomenon, where you can tell by the way a couple DESCRIBES how they met how well they’re doing now as a couple. Notice “how they met” isn’t what matters but how they DESCRIBE it.)

So I was hoping when I saw Weird: Immune Perfume to Lure Mates that this was another example of a radical headline to draw readers’ attention to something more subtle and interesting.

But no. That’s… actually what the story says.

The very short version: women prefer perfumes that include peptides that match their own immune systems; they like things that “smell” like themselves. Both the article and the research say other things too, but the article really means it about luring mates.

The conclusion in the Livescience article is that “[t]he findings could be used to create synthetic perfume chemicals that could broadcast a person’s immune signature as a lure for potential mates.”

And of course, the critical thinkers in the audience will recognize that that’s not actually what the findings could be used for. They could be used to create perfumes with different peptides that women will prefer based on their own MHC. Whether or not that would “lure mates” hasn’t been shown. The study that could be used to create perfumes to lure mates is one that asks people which perfume they prefer on which potential partners.

Now, the study itself, just published online (you can read the whole thing), has a first author from the Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Biology, so I was like, “I think those folks are probably way smarter than me and are not saying this thing about luring mates,” which is why I went and read the study.

And what they actually said was “These findings are in keeping with previous observations that humans sharing specific MHC alleles also share a preference for particular natural perfume ingredients and posit that perfumes may contain structurally diverse peptide mimics.” They don’t mention mate selection in the discussion section (though the introduction makes it clear that they think that that’s likely a factor.)

What behavior DO they name in the discussion?

“Kin recognition.”

It’s way less sexy, though, isn’t it, to say, “Women wear perfume so that their family can smell them and feel comfy and at home!” But from what I gather, that’s as good a conclusion as mate luring.

Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m being unnecessarily nitpicky when I insist that science writing actually say what the science says, or when I insist that people think very carefully and closely (which usually means very SLOWLY) about evolution. After all, does it matter that the study doesn’t measure whether or not people are attracted to people whose peptides match their perfume? It shows us that women like to smell like themselves, and that could easily mean they’re broadcasting their immune systems, which would make perfectly good sense.

But just so YOU guys know, the study’s conclusions are both more tentative and more complex.

And I’d be willing to bet that partner-perfume-preference study is coming soon.

Emily Nagoski

  2 Responses to “*Does* perfume “lure mates”?”

Comments (2)
  1. Huh, funny how the subtle answer is far more interesting to me than the pop-science headline grabber. I’d come across the thing about MHC alleles affecting your personal scent and ‘kin recognition’, and it’s pretty damn cool that in picking a perfume you like that smells good on you*, your choice may be influenced by your immune system genetics.

    I seem to recall that in picking a mate one thing that might be selected for is the compatibility of your immune systems. They need to be similar but not too similar.
    And the UG lectures I had on MHC genetics just made my brain melt. Immunology is hard!

    My own interesting scent-related story was when my best mate and I had exactly the same top in the same size (i.e. with no distinguishing features) and I could tell by smell alone that the top I had picked up was hers. I hadn’t realised before then how different we smell!

    *I think it’s fairly well known that your own scent affects how good a particular perfume smells on you. The science behind perfumery is pretty complex from what I gather.

    Finally, no, I don’t think you’re being nitpicky in your belief that science writing should accurately reflect the science! Science writing is meant to be there to EDUCATE people! Lying, or being economical with the truth, or being deliberately misleading or simply giving too much credence to the highly tentative conclusions and implications of the science muddies the waters and confuses those who may not have the time/inclination/ability to follow things up in more depth. Which defeats the whole damn point of the exercise.

    And yeah, those evo-pysche-supporting people need to get a grip, strop extrapolating from the flimsiest of evidence, and stop anthropomorphising evolutionary forces. /End rant.

  2. Hmm. Wasn’t there already a partner-selection perfume study? You may know it better than I do, I think I once saw a documentary on Franco-German tv arte about human sexuality in which a researcher from, I think, the German university of Bielefeld? was interviewed, who, in my recollection, talked about such research – with a conclusion (well, what I remember from the tv interview) that’s in line with what you say about liking the smell of oneself above: People should only use perfume they actually *like* to smell because in that case it enhances the recognizability of their own immune system, while using perfume that they did not choose themselves and do not like is likely creating “mixed signals” with respect to the immune system aspect for potential mates.

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