Comparatively Speaking: Universal vs. Cultural Scent Interpretation

Few odors are as universal as the smell of rotting food, sour milk or feces. These odors universally are repugnant, independent of culture. The repugnant nature of these odors warn humans of unhealthy situations and humans have evolved to know they should be avoided.

However, as one might expect, there are differences in how humans interpret odors. This may be learned regionally or culturally, and children learn what smells "good" or "bad" through experience. For example, in the UK, many elderly British individuals do not care for the scent of wintergreen, which many Americans like. The difference is the experience this fragrance elicits. The older British population experienced wintergreen during World War II, when it was commonly used as an antiseptic, thus it reminds the population of this unpleasant experience.

Responses to scent obviously may also be individual based upon a memory. Whereas most find  the smell of skunk to be unpleasant, if the scent of skunk is associated with a good memory, such as visiting a grandmother, then an individual may enjoy that scent. 

While product developers typically are aware of universal scents, they may only be aware of their own culture's preferences. Therefore, when choosing a formula fragrance, they should familiarize themselves with the scent preferences of different age, geographical and sex demographics.  

Further Reading
More information on this topic can be found by reading Learning to Smell: Olfactory Perception from Neurobiology to Behavior, a book by Donald Wilson and Richard J Stevenson, or by visiting Perfumer & Flavorist magazine's website.

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