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The Scent of Fear

Ackerl, K. Atzmueller, A., Grammer, K. (2002)

Neuroendocrinological Letters, 23.2 pp. 79-84.

In this study we tried to find out if fear can be detected from human body odours. Female subjects wore under-arm axillary pads while watching the a terryfying film. Saliva cortisol samples were taken before and after the film presentation as a hormonal measure for the fear response. The fear experience itself was measured by Spielbergeręs State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. A 'neutral' film, shown one day after the 'fear' film, was used as a control in a repeated measures design. In part two of the experiment, the axillary pads were presented to female subjects in a triple forced choice test. Results show that subjects were able to discriminate between fear and non-fear axillary pads, suggesting that women are indeed able to detect 'the scent of fear'. A direct correlation between induced fear, changes in cortisol levels and smell ratings could not be established. Thus cortisol levels are probably not the inducer of the scent of fear and a hypothetical fear pheromone could have other origins.


Specially prepared newly developped odourpads were applied in the axilla to collect sweat during the 70 minute experiment. (right)


Film stimuli used as fear inducers (Candyman by Tristar, 1992) and controls (Lokorama by S.R.Film, 1990, left)


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