By Mandy Oaklander
Researchers believe that our unique bodily scent plays a larger role in our social lives than we know. Now, social media entrepreneurs are putting that science to the test. Can you sniff your way to love?
Everyone knows that to find true love, you have to be yourself. I’d never heard that you should also smell like yourself, though, until I joined a matchmaking service called Smell Dating. For three days and nights I wore the same cotton T-shirt, through sweaty workouts and while I slept. Showers were allowed. Deodorant was not. After 72 hours, the cotton was pickled in my essence.
I passed off the damp, stained tee to the New York University researchers who run Smell Dating, who saw it not as an object of disgust, but as boyfriend bait. They cut my T-shirt into swatches, stuffed them inside little zip-top bags and mailed them to 10 people who’d also signed up for this bizarre social experiment. I’d get stinky T-shirt samples, other people would get stinky T-shirt samples, and if by chance any two of us chooses each other’s odor, the NYU team will introduce us.
Smell Dating is the first mail-order smell dating service, but its creators aren’t the only ones wagering that we’re better at choosing partners through our noses than our eyes. By sniffing other people’s body odor instead of swiping right on their photos, the thinking goes, we rely on primal bodily intuition. A small but growing trend in social media is to go nose first when it comes to romance: whether by throwing get-togethers that hook people up based on the smell of their T-shirt, like Pheromone Parties, or by matching people based on how similarly they smell the world, like the Israeli social network SmellSpace. Whether interventions like these are successful is a current area of research.
It sounds like a gimmick, sure, but researchers believe that the nose plays a much larger role in our social lives than we realize. Not that we’ve given it much of a chance. Dating has quickly become a visual enterprise; in 2005, very few Americans had tried online dating, but now 15% have, and technology like Tinder, Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat reinforce the visual conventions that society says we should find attractive. Smell Dating, then, is a throwback—a way to connect us, at long last, with our most basic, biological mating cues.