Individuals in committed romantic relationships tend to downplay the attractiveness of potential partners. This derogation of alternatives, as researchers refer to it, helps the relationship’s long-term future by decreasing the likelihood that partners will be tempted by others.1 To determine whether somebody derogates alternatives, researchers typically straight-up ask them (e.g., “I regularly find myself looking at attractive others”) or, more sneakily, record how long (heterosexual) individuals look at pictures of opposite-sex people when presented with a range of photos. What both of these measures have in common is they basically rely on what people look at. But what about the other senses? Do we derogate in other ways? Follow the nose….
Researchers studied 20 heterosexual women, their dating partners, and a male and female friend of each woman to determine whether women in romantic relationships derogate using olfactory cues (i.e., smell).2 Specifically, researchers asked the partners and women’s friends to wear a cotton T-shirt to bed each night for seven nights; the shirts had nursing pads sewn into the armpits of the shirts to capture the “smell” of the T-shirt wearers. The target women subsequently indicated how much romantic love they felt for their partners and then underwent a common ‘smell test’ (a complicated procedure that requires sniffing a lot of sniffin’ sticks) to determine how well they could identify the smell of their partners, male friends, and female friends.
What did they find? Women were generally good at matching specific smells to the correct person (i.e., they recognized the unique smells of their partners, male friends, and female friends). But women’s ability to identify their male friends’ smell decreased the more in love they reported being with their partners. In other words, the more attached women were to their partners, the less able they were to pick out the smell of their male friends (who are, presumably, possible alternative partners). No such association between romantic love and identification of partner and female friends was found.
This study and others on the topic of attentiveness to alternatives indicate that our brains work very hard to protect our relationships when we’re strongly connected to another by engaging in all sorts of tricks that downplay possible alternative partners.
So perhaps Toucan Sam was way ahead of his time. Follow your nose! It always knows!….when you’re in love with your partner.
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1Miller, R. S. (1997). Inattentive and contented: Relationship commitment and attention to alternatives. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 73, 758-766.
2Lundström, J. N., & Jones-Gotman, M. (2009) Romantic love modulates women’s identification of men’s body odors. Hormones and Behavior, 55, 280-284.
Dr. Loving’s research addresses the mental and physical health impact of relationship transitions (e.g., falling in love, breaking up) and the role friends and family serve as we adapt to these transitions. He’s a former Associate Editor of Personal Relationships and his research has been funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
image source: mewarnai.us/images/615379-toco-toucan.jpg