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“Unpleasant body odor” and people’s desire to help you

Monday, January 27, 2014
posted by Rita Handrich

body-odorMaybe I shouldn’t have bothered. I spent thirteen years consulting with managers and nothing could turn them into anxious giggling adolescents faster than figuring out how to talk to an employee about offensive body odor. Somehow, it felt more “personal” than addressing issues like tardiness, inappropriate or disruptive behaviors, poor work performance, or the myriad other issues that arise when you are managing a diverse group of adult employees. Typically, a manager would get complaints from members of the person’s workgroup or their customers. They would seek advice on how to handle the situation, using words like “stinky”, “disgusting”, “gross”, “nasty”, “rude”, or “totally unacceptable”. We had to identify less emotionally laden words to describe the bad body odor (made worse by enclosed work spaces) in order to raise the manager’s comfort level with the difficult conversation, and to keep them from being either hurtful to the employee or sparking an outburst. 

New research says maybe unpleasant body odor doesn’t disgust after all. Instead, maybe bad body odor elicits pity and makes people help the smelly person more. This certainly was not my experience over more than a decade of helping managers have difficult conversations. But, here is what the researchers found. First, you may wonder how they developed an “unpleasant body odor” for the research. They did not rely simply on not bathing or engaging in activities that resulted in profuse sweating. This was science. So, to mimic an unpleasant body odor, they soaked a T-shirt in a “solution of human sweat, beer, hydrogen sulfide, and fart spray”. Really. (They didn’t identify where they acquired the ‘fart spray’, which seems like a research design flaw to me.) And in between experiments, they checked the odor of the T-shirt to make sure everyone would have the same level of wafting scent (and added the stinky solution to the T-shirt as necessary).

For the first experiment, they had participants smell the T-shirt and asked them to imagine the T-shirt belonged to someone with whom they had to work. The participants then filled out reaction forms to the smelly T-shirt person. In this experiment, the researchers found that participants felt sorry for the smelly person and found them pathetic.

Thus the researchers knew an unpleasant body odor could evoke feelings of pity but wondered whether it would result in helping behavior. And it did. In the second experiment, the same smelly T-shirt was used and the research participants were seated next to a real person wearing the smelly T-shirt. They completed a maze task together and then were asked to privately assign how the “credits” for the experiment should be divided between the research participant and the smelly confederate. Those participants with a smelly partner assigned more credits to their partner than did those with a neutral (i.e., not smelly) partner.

For the third experiment, the participants were asked to wait for the confederate who arrived late for the experiment (wearing the smelly t-shirt). The researcher asked the smelly person why they were late and the person replied either that they “stopped because they wanted a drink” or they were late due to attending “a reception required by my department”. In this experiment, when the smelly person had chosen to go to a bar, they were awarded less credits than when they had gone to a mandated reception.

In other words, say the researchers, if you smell bad but it isn’t really your fault [because you had to go to a reception], others are going to help you.

If it is your fault though [because you chose to go to a bar and drink], they will probably not help you.

This is actually somewhat consistent with what I saw in the workplace. Over time, people would assume the person who smelled bad was either responsible or not responsible for the smell and would become increasingly resentful of the smelly person who was not in financial distress, mentally challenged, or mentally ill. They would give gifts to the financially distressed, mentally challenged and mentally ill of soaps, toothbrushes, shampoos and other personal hygiene items in the guise of seeing a great sale or having extras. And they would talk negatively with each other about those they saw as lazy, willfully disrespectful, or otherwise responsible for the body odor that followed them around and stuck to their co-workers in the enclosed work space.

What isn’t addressed is that the issue appears to be one of virtue, not odor. If people see others in distress, they are more likely to be critical if the distress is related to their own bad judgment. But if the person is troubled in some way, they are more likely to be given lee-way. It might have less to do with odor, and more to do with whether the person is seen as dishonorable, as opposed to impaired.

The challenge for litigation is to clean up the bad smell, or stigma, associated with the conduct at issue. Somehow, restore their dignity or virtue even in the midst of the conflict. Their flaws can be forgiven if the person is seen as “doing the best they can”, or if they demonstrate virtue in another situation (they volunteer at a soup kitchen, teach Sunday School, or donate to charitable efforts). If you can’t take the “smell” away entirely, the alternative involves explaining the offensiveness away by showing that the situation isn’t one of their intentional conduct.

You are more likely to get helping behavior from the jury if your client (who doesn’t quite pass the smell test) is seen as a victim of circumstances than the driver of bad (aka “smelly”) behavior.

Camps, J., Stouten, J., Tuteleers, C., & van Son, K. (2014). Smells like cooperation? Unpleasant body odor and people’s perceptions and helping behaviors. Journal of Applied Social Psychology. DOI: 10.1111/jasp.12203

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