Women detect underarm odor better than men?

1 05 2009

“Women have a better sense of smell than men, at least when it comes to detecting underarm odor,” claims Nicholas Bakalar of The New York Times.

A recent study collected underarm secretions from 59 male and female participants.  The researchers then tested a different group of men and women at sniffing the secretions followed by chemical fragrances. When the armpit odor or the fragrances were presented separately, there was little difference in the perceptions of men and women. But when the chemicals were presented after the secretions, thereby attempting to conceal the smell of the secretions, men were much less likely than the women to detect the underlying male or female odor.  In general, male odor was more frequently detected by both men and women when concealed by the fragrance.

George Preti, the senior author of the study, reasoned that underarm odors might be important to women in mate selection and reproduction. “This study highlights how women receive biological odors even in the presence of fragrances meant to block them.  Biological information is present in underarm secretions, even when you try to screen it out,” he claimed.

Hmm…Oh, how I wish I could figure out how to access the full text of the article without paying for it so I could critique it in full. The New York Times column was a fun read, but for the New York Times Author to entitle the article “Perceptions: No Hiding Underarm Odor From Women” is stretching the study’s results more than a little bit.  I’m always pretty skeptical about any article that claims that women are biologically different from men while failing to take into account social influences, making broad generalizations based on little evidence, and citing studies with small numbers of participants.  I just really don’t know about this one.  The idea of volunteering for a study in which you are asked to sniff people’s underarm secretions, however, is hilarious.  Any thoughts?



One response

1 05 2009

Often, we see that the media presents headlines that are either major exaggerations of a study’s findings, or actual lies and misinterpretations. This particular headline is actually not as bad as some of them (although by no means excusable). It implies that women have a better sense of smell than men do, as does the line in the article that’s been quoted.

What’s obnoxious is that when you read the studies themselves, or even the description of the studies and the results/conclusions in the articles that present them to a wider audience, you pretty much get the right idea of what happened. But the titles of articles, and the way that journalists frame the research are incredibly damaging; and we WONDER why people don’t really get scientific discoveries!

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