The scent of fear

Neuro Endocrinol Lett. 2002 Apr;23(2):79-84.


In this study we tried to find out if fear can be detected from human body odours. Female subjects wore under-arm axillary pads while watching a terrifying film. Saliva cortisol samples were taken before and after the film presentation as a hormonal measure for the fear response. The fear experience itself was measured by Spielberger's State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. A "neutral" film, shown one day after the "fear" film, was used as a control in a repeated measures design. In part two of the experiment, the axillary pads were presented to female subjects in a triple forced choice test. Results show that subjects were able to discriminate between fear and non-fear axillary pads, suggesting that women are indeed able to detect "the scent of fear". A direct correlation between induced fear, changes in cortisol levels and smell ratings could not be established. Thus cortisol levels are probably not the inducer of the scent of fear and a hypothetical fear pheromone could have other origins.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Anxiety / physiopathology
  • Communication
  • Fear / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Hydrocortisone / analysis
  • Pheromones / physiology*
  • Salivary Glands / chemistry
  • Smell / physiology*


  • Pheromones
  • Hydrocortisone