The smell of love

Wednesday 11 February 2004

Scientists investigating the attractiveness of the opposite sex have found that, when it comes to long-term relationships, the scent of a partner is just as important as looks.

The researchers at the University of St Andrews studied how much women and men were attracted to the looks and potential smell of possible partners, and found that both women and men tend to use both odour and visual signals when considering a partner for a committed relationship. It was not so consistent when they were asked to consider a brief affair or casual relationship.

Headed by R. Elisabeth Cornwell of the School of Psychology’s Perception Lab, in collaboration with colleagues in the School of Biology and School of Medicine, the team asked a group of adults to look at opposite sex faces and consider potential partnerships. As well as the visual attractiveness, they rated the odour of male and female sex pheromones for pleasantness.

The findings, published today, indicate that both pheromones and sexually dimorphic (masculine or feminine) facial characteristics convey common information about the quality of signals of potential partners, and that these signals influence attraction.

They said: “Evolutionary psychologists argue evolution has shaped the behaviour and strategies that men and women use today when seeking a relationship. Unlike most other primates, humans commit to long-term relationships. The explanation for this aspect of human mating rests with the high investment needed to raise offspring. Since long-term relationships involve a higher level of commitment, humans make sure all the available information is right when deciding who they want. When seeking a long-term relationship, apparently concordance between someone’s looks and smell is more important than when seeking a short-term relationship.”

“It is telling that the perfume and deodorant industry attempt to mask or modify the odour of naturally occurring pheromones, yet these compounds provide important information which apparently affect partnership judgments in the same way as facial appearance,” said the researchers.

The pheromones used are thought to be produced as metabolites of sex steroids, testosterone and oestrogen. While little is known about the female pheromone, the two male pheromones used in the study have been found in human semen, urine, saliva, and the axillary hair where the apocrine glands are in high concentration (e.g. underarms, groin area).

The Perception Lab at St Andrews is well known for the work on human preferences for facial attractiveness – such as symmetry – in terms of romantic partnerships. Expanding on the concept of mate attraction, they investigated whether putative human pheromones relate to human mate choice in the same manner as facial characteristics. While both men and women may release many of the same pheromones, they, like facial characteristics, can be classified as being either typically masculine or feminine.

The preference for face shape and the rating of the pheromone odours were considered for both long- and short-term romantic partnerships; however, it was only when judging for long-term, rather than short- term partnerships that the visual and olfactory (sense of smell) signals were found to be in agreement.

In addition to the putative male / female pheromone, the participants were shown two versions of an opposite- sex face – one was more masculine or feminine than the other. Men who showed a stronger preference for a more feminine shaped face showed a stronger preference for the odour of a chemical thought to be a female sex pheromone. Similarly women who showed a stronger preference for a more masculine shaped face showed a stronger preference for the odour of a chemical thought to be a male sex pheromone.

R. Elisabeth Cornwell notes “Choosing a partner for a long-term relationship is perhaps one of the most important decisions we make in our life. This is the person who most people hope to spend the rest of their life and raise a family. It makes sense that we would want to consider as much information available to us as possible.”

“I would not advise to rush out and buy commercial pheromones to find that perfect partner, Most people find the odour repellent. It isn’t that women find men who reek of pheromones more attractive, it is only that individual women who happen to find the male odour more pleasant also tend toward preferring more masculine facial characteristics. In the end, finding the right partner is a lot more complicated than just how we look or how we smell.”

Anyone can find out a little more about their preferences for faces at the Perception Lab’s web site




The Paper ‘Concordant Preferences For Opposite Sex Signals? Human Pheromones And Facial Characteristics’ by R E Cornwell and others appears in the current edition of The Royal Society’s Proceedings B.

IMAGES: Permission to reproduce the above images must be sought from the Perception Lab and credit must be appropriately given.


Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050 103, or email [email protected] Ref: Smell of Love 110204 View the latest University news at

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