The climate-controlled, color-coordinated and plant-lined corridors of the typical American shopping mall can make visitors feel like subjects of a carefully planned psychological experiment.
Which is exactly what shoppers became recently when Robert Baron and his researchers entered Crossgates Mall in upstate New York.
As consumers strolled past Cinnabon and Nine West, Mrs. Field’s and Banana Republic, they encountered young folk requesting change for a dollar or clumsily dropping ballpoint pens. Little did the subjects suspect that their conduct was being evaluated.
The researchers were trying to see if the heady aroma of coffee or the soothing, grandmother’s-house smell of baking cookies might lull people into acts of kindness they would otherwise forgo.
One of two experiments showed that while under the olfactory influence of roasting coffee or baking cookies, people were more than twice as likely to provide a stranger with change for a dollar than they were in unscented surroundings. The dropped-pen experiment produced similar results.
“Lo and behold, when there was a pleasant fragrance in the air people were more helpful,” said Baron, a professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
Each experiment tested the helpfulness of 116 shoppers, and both tried to match the scented and unscented test areas as much as possible for things like time of day, volume of pedestrian traffic, nearness to entrances and lighting.
The experiments also gender-matched testers and subjects, with only men approaching male shoppers and only women approaching females. That limitation was requested by mall director Charles Breidenbach, who worried that shoppers - especially women approached by men - might interpret a change request as a lame pickup effort.
In a paper accepted for publication in a future issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Baron explains how pleasant smells lead to good deeds.
“The effects of pleasant fragrances on social behavior stem, at least in part, from fragrance-induced increments in positive affect,” Baron writes.
So, good smells make people happy. And when people feel happy, they’re nice to one another.
“There’s nothing magical,” Baron said. “When you put people in a good mood … they become more helpful.”
The opposite is also true, notes Craig Anderson of the University of Missouri in Columbia. Unpleasant smells can make people frighteningly aggressive by putting them in bad moods.
So can annoying noises, uncomfortably hot surroundings and other seemingly minor irritants. Research has shown that murder rates go up in concert with uncomfortable summer temperatures.
“That’s what makes it fascinating to social psychologists,” Anderson said. “How can someone believe that murder rates … could possibly be influenced by somebody being uncomfortable because it’s hot?”
Baron can’t explain it all, but he said he’s confident enough in the phenomenon that he’s sunk half his life savings into it. Baron holds patents on a device he calls a combination air filter, white-noise generator and fragrance producer designed to reduce the stress of living in college dormitories and other close quarters.
Owners of the gizmo can boost their moods by simultaneously drowning out background noise, cleaning their air and, if they like, scenting their surroundings with one of three fragrances - citrus, floral and something Baron calls “fresh.”
“It combines all my research on the environment,” he said.