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Sensory determinants of human attractiveness – ATTRASENS

The ATTRASENS project not only involves psychology of olfactory perception, but also visual perception (human faces), chemistry (to study specific compounds of body odor that are little known and not commercially available), evolutionary science (to formulate hypotheses about the adaptive functions of body odor), social cognition (to understand how body odor contributes, with the information it conveys, to build knowledge about others) and affective and social neuroscience (to understand the neural bases of the perception of this highly significant information). On the course of this project, we studied body odor compounds that were identified in the literature as being typically male or female. We examined the ability of men and women to detect and describe these odors, the impact of these odors on perceived masculinity and attractiveness of faces using a priming paradigm, and the neural circuits activated by these odors versus non-human odors during fMRI session.

The ATTRASENS project has shown male-female differences in the implicit processing of human body odor compounds, in particular in terms of influence on the perception of faces and sniffing behavior. These results suggest that, in men only, masculinity perceived in faces is influenced by the odor associated with the face, which may play a role in intra-sexual interactions. Sex differences were also observed in the activations of brain areas involved in social cognition, with a significant interaction between the sex of the recipient (the perceiver) and the sex of the transmitter (compounds that are predominant in women or in men).

In order to understand the role of human odors in social interactions and partner choice, a remaining lock concerns the knowledge of the composition of the human odor in its complexity and variability, because this knowledge is limited to date. Only a few compounds of body odor have been studied in the ATTRASENS project, and other relevant odorants or groups of odorants that will be identified in the future deserve to be studied in the same way. Moreover, the effect of these odors should be investigated beyond the perception of others: the observation of behaviors during real social interactions could be particularly informative. Perspectives for the daily life of people can also be identified, as evidenced by the recent collaborations - initiated within the framework of the ATTRASENS project - with industry (development of tools to help anosmic people, suffering from lack of control of their own body odor) and with an association training dogs to help people with diabetes (detection of hypoglycaemia via body odor).

The results obtained during the ATTRASENS project have been communicated in several conferences and are the object of several publications, one of which is submitted and another one is in preparation (MRI analyzes in progress). A perspective article on the role of odors in human social interactions has also been published, as well as three articles about human sniffing behavior, its perceptual correlates and its variability according to individual factors or exposure.

1. Ferdenzi C, Fournel A, Baldovini N, Manesse C, Thevenet M, Bensafi M. (in preparation) Sex differences in the functional neuronal processing of human body odor compounds.
2. Ferdenzi C, Fournel A, Baldovini N, Poupon D, Ligout D, Thévenet M, Bensafi M. (soumis). An acid compound of human body odor influences male-male perception.
3. Ferdenzi C, Joussain P, Digard P, Luneau L, Djordjevic J & Bensafi M (2017) Individual differences in verbal and non-verbal affective responses to smells: influence of odor label across cultures. Chemical Senses, 42, 37-46.
4. Ferdenzi C, Rouby C & Bensafi M (2016) The social nose: Importance of olfactory perception in group dynamics and relationships. Psychological Inquiry, 27, 299-305.
5. Ferdenzi C, Fournel A, Thévenet M, Coppin G & Bensafi M (2015). Viewing olfactory affective responses through the sniff prism: Effect of perceptual dimensions and age on olfactomotor responses to odors. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1776.
6. Ferdenzi C, Poncelet J, Rouby C & Bensafi M (2014). Repeated exposure to odors induces affective habituation of perception and sniffing. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 8, 119.

Submission summary

Research on body odors and their link with human attractiveness is relatively new. It has exploded in the last two decades, triggering scientific debates (especially on the notion of human pheromones), questioning on whether personal odors influence social preferences, and fascination in the general public. Studies on that topic provide increasing evidence that body odors do influence human preferences and behaviors, notably in terms of partner choice. This idea is supported, for instance, by the fact that body odor perception and emission varies according to menstrual cycle phase, that body odor helps direct one’s preference towards mates that are genetically appropriate from an adaptive point of view, and that odors have a cross-modal influence on face perception.

The AttraSens project proposed here aims at better understanding how human body odors or body odor key-compounds influence other determinants of attractiveness, namely visual and auditory. The project is divided into 3 tasks, corresponding to 3 experiments over 36 months, aiming at studying multimodal determinants of attractiveness. The applicant, Dr Camille Ferdenzi, will supervise the project and benefit from the expertise of a postdoctoral fellow (12 months) for the brain imaging aspect of the research. Task 1 tests the dominance of a sensory modality in the determination of a person’s overall attractiveness, in an experimental psychology setting. Task 2 aims at investigating whether body odor key compounds (pseudo-pheromones) are able to increase attention capture by attractive faces, by means of behavioral and EEG measures. Task 3 uses a design similar to task 2 with brain imagery (fMRI) to better understand the neural activations behind these attention phenomena.

This project will contribute to scientific progress in understanding the impact of body odors, but also faces and voices, on human sexual selection behaviors. Research on face, voice and body odor perception in the frame of human attractiveness, despite being a subject of great interest at the international level, is really under-represented in France. The feasibility and chances of success of the project are high for several reasons. First, it is the continuation of an ongoing research led by the applicant. Indeed, it uses a database (the GEAD: GEneva Attractiveness Database of faces and voices) that will be achieved end 2012. Second, this project will be facilitated by the fact that collaboration already exists between the host laboratory (Dr Moustafa Bensafi, University of Lyon 1) and the applicant’s current laboratory, on several aspects of affective sciences and olfaction (Prof David Sander and Dr Sylvain Delplanque, University of Geneva). The applicant also wishes to reinforce her interactions with one of the top research groups in evolutionary psychology and human mate-choice, specialized in face, voice and body odor perception (Dr S. Craig Roberts, University of Stirling, Scotland). Third, the strong scientific and technical background provided by the host organization, the CRNL (Centre de Recherche en Neurosciences de Lyon) of CNRS and University of Lyon 1, and by other local platforms such as the Centre d’Etude et de Recherche Multimodal Et Pluridisciplinaire en imagerie du vivant (CERMEP), will ensure the efficient implementation of the project, especially regarding the neuroscientific aspects of the proposed research.

Project coordination

Camille FERDENZI-LEMAÎTRE (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique) – camille.ferdenzi@inserm.fr

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


CNRS Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique

Help of the ANR 271,053 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: May 2013 - 36 Months

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