Reduced pleasant touch appraisal in the presence of a disgusting odor

PLoS One. 2014 Mar 24;9(3):e92975. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0092975. eCollection 2014.


Objectives: Odors are powerful emotional stimuli influencing mood, attention and behavior. Here we examined if odors change the perception of pleasant touch. In line with the warning function of the olfactory system, we proposed that especially unpleasant odors will reduce touch pleasantness, presumably through a disgust-related mechanism.

Methods: Forty-five healthy participants (mean age 23.3 +/- 3years SD, 24 females) were presented to slow (3 cm/s) and fast (30 cm/s) brush stroking delivered by a robot to the forearm. Touch pleasantness under the influence of an unpleasant odor (Civette, smelling like feces) and an intensity matched pleasant odor (Rose) was compared to an odorless control condition. In a pilot study with 30 participants (mean age 25.9 +/-6 years, 21 females), the odors were matched according to their intensity, and we studied the influence of disgust sensitivity on the perception of 4 different odor qualities.

Results: The unpleasant odor decreased touch pleasantness for both stroking velocities compared to the odorless control (p<0.005) whereas the rose odor did not change touch pleasantness significantly. Disgust sensitivity was correlated with the modulation of touch pleasantness. The pilot study revealed a significant correlation between disgust sensitivity and the perception of the unpleasant odor qualities (r = -0.56; p = 0.007), but not with any of the other odors.

Conclusion: Unpleasant odors are powerful in modulating touch pleasantness, and disgust might be a moderating variable.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Odorants*
  • Pilot Projects
  • Pleasure / physiology*
  • Smell / physiology*
  • Touch Perception / physiology*

Grant support

The work was supported by the Swedish Research Council. IC is funded by a scholarship from the German Research Foundation (DFG; CR 479/1-1). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.