Smell is often considered to be a particularly evocative sense: if you haven’t yourself been transported back in time by a nostalgic scent then you’ll almost certainly be familiar with the phenomenon via reference to the famous Proustian rush. Scent is also increasingly being used in marketing, with some evidence suggesting that smell can influence consumers’ judgements and decisions.
A new study, published in the Journal for Consumer Psychology, takes a closer look at how smell interacts with other senses to influence our perceptions. The team, led by the University of South Florida’s Dipayan Biswas, finds that looking at food before smelling it may enhance our enjoyment of what we eat.
In the first study, 198 students were split into four conditions. In all conditions, five pieces of a red strawberry-flavoured fruit snack were placed in front of participants inside an opaque envelope. In the first condition, participants smelled the snack first before looking inside the envelope; in the second, participants looked at the snack before smelling it; and in the final two conditions, participants were instructed to either only smell or only look at the snack.
All participants then rated the expected taste of the snack, as well as describing its smell and colour. They were then allowed to eat the fruit snack, and rated their perception of the actual taste and how much they liked it. Finally, they stated whether or not they would recommend it to a friend and were asked whether they either wanted an entry into a prize draw for a gift card or a pouch of the snack they had just sampled.
Expected taste was more favourable in the condition where participants saw the food before they smelled it; those in this condition also evaluated the snack more favourably after tasting. These participants were also more likely to recommend the snack to a friend, and more likely to accept the full sized pouch at the end of a survey than to enter the prize draw. Together, this suggests that seeing the food before smelling it had a favourable impact on enjoyment. A second study, which replicated the first but with a fizzy drink, and a third which did the same with a cookie, produced similar results.
In the final study, participants either received lemonade that was coloured purple, so that its look was incongruent with its lemony smell, or that retained its clear “natural” colour. When the scent was consistent with the look of the beverage, those who saw the drink before they smelled it again reported that it tasted better than those who smelled it before they saw it. However, when the visual cue was incongruent with the smell, taste was rated in a similar way in both conditions.
The team suggests when people see and then smell a food or drink, it’s easier to process the smell, leading to increased taste perception. But when the visual cues are incongruent with the smell, seeing first and then smelling can actually make it harder to process the smell, as the smell seems inconsistent with the colour. This could be a sign that food and drink manufacturers should stay away from artificial colouring that doesn’t match expected taste or smell.
Overall, the results suggest that having a good look at your food before you smell it could lead to increased enjoyment. Unless you’re willing to put a peg on your nose while you cook, however, this might be difficult to enact when you’re making your own dinner. But for premade food purchased in supermarkets, bakeries or elsewhere, clever packaging could enhance enjoyment.