For many of us, our friends are like family — but what is it about your BFFs that brought you together? While we may think of friendship-building factors like shared interests, similar personalities or even proximity (especially when it comes to making friends at work), new research suggests that the base of friendships could have to do with simple body chemistry. Specifically, sharing a similar body odor could be a key factor in creating that initial friendship “click.”
Follow your nose to friendship
While it may be immediately obvious when our noses meet a strong smell that we find off-putting, we may not consider how a similar odor may draw us together for what appear to be instant friendships. Curious about the role of scent in these types of quick-to-develop, intense friendships? Inbal Ravreby, a graduate student in the lab of Noam Sobel, an olfaction researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel, decided to conduct some research.
In a small study of 20 pairs of nonromantic same-sex friends, which was recently published in the journal Science Advances, Ravreby and her colleagues found that people whose friendship “clicked” right away also had similarities when it came to their body odors.
As part of the research, the pairs of “click” friends were put through a regimen related to human body odor — they had to stop eating body odor-affecting foods like onions and garlic for a few days, bathe with unscented soap and abstain from using after-shave and deodorant.
Then, the participants were given a clean tee to sleep in (to soak up their body odor). Using the tees as samples, the researchers then used an electronic nose (which is a type of chemical sensing device) and team of volunteers to assess the similarities in smells.
The result? The body odors of the pairs of friends were more similar to each other than those of the other people. This suggests that the click friends share a similar body odor — which may unknowingly have contributed to that so-called instant connection when they first met each other.
As Ravreby noted in The New York Times, “It’s very probable that at least some of them were using perfumes when they met.” However, Ravreby adds that, even if they were, “it did not mask whatever they had in common.”
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Can scent make or break a friendship?
While these results are interesting, it’s also important to note that the sample used in this research was quite small, and that other factors may contribute to the connection between people that may also be related to similar body odor. For example, someone who you have an instant “click” with may have a similar lifestyle or eating habits as you, which could attribute to a similar body odor.
With this in mind, the researchers also conducted an experiment with people who didn’t already have a friendship. In this research, strangers played a mirroring game together in the lab (after first wearing and getting their body odor on a tee). After the game, the participants filled out questionnaires about their connection with their partners. Here again, similar scents suggested a more positive connection.
What does all this mean? While the findings aren’t definitive, they bring up some interesting questions about the many factors that go into how we feel about each other. As noted in Scientific American, Ravreby also points out how this research can make us think about humans’ animal nature, and how that relates to social bonding.
“I think it’s a reminder for us humans to appreciate how much we’re similar to other mammals,” Ravreby said. “[Taking] inspiration from other animals and the amazing mechanisms that they have can really help us understand what [causes] social bonding and what doesn’t.”
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