Aversive smell associations shape social judgment

Philipp Homan, Benjamin A. Ely, May Yuan, Tobias Brosch, John Ng, Yaacov Trope, Daniela Schiller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Once associating another person with an unpleasant smell, how do we perceive and judge this person from that moment on? Here, we used aversive olfactory conditioning followed by a social attribution task during functional magnetic resonance imaging to address this question. After conditioning, where one of two faces was repeatedly paired with an aversive smell, the participants reported negative affect when viewing the smell-conditioned but not the neutral face. When subsequently confronted with the smell-conditioned face (without any smell), the participants tended to judge both positive and negative behaviors as indicative of personality traits rather than related to the situation. This effect was predicted by the degree of the preceding olfactory evaluative conditioning. Whole brain analysis of stimulus by stage interaction indicated differential activation of the ventromedial prefrontal cortex and right angular gyrus to the conditioned versus the neutral person during the attribution phase only. These results suggest that negative smell associations do not simply induce a negative perception of the target person but rather bias the attribution style towards trait attributions. The fact that this bias was evident regardless of behavior valence suggests it may reflect enhanced psychological distance. Thus, the known observation of social rejection triggered by aversive smell may be driven by a shift in social attribution style.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)86-95
Number of pages10
JournalNeurobiology of Learning and Memory
StatePublished - Oct 2017


  • Attribution
  • Olfactory conditioning
  • Smell
  • Social decision-making
  • Ventromedial prefrontal cortex

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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