“Political attitudes vary with detection of androstenone” [Politics and the Life Sciences]

“Political attitudes vary with detection of androstenone

Amanda Friesen, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis
Mike Gruszczynski , Indiana University Bloomington
Kevin B. Smith, University of Nebraska–Lincoln
John R. Alford, Rice University

Politics and the Life Sciences


DOI: https://doi.org/10.1017/pls.2019.18

Published online by Cambridge University Press: 22 January 2020


Building on a growing body of research suggesting that political attitudes are part of broader individual and biological orientations, we test whether the detection of the hormone androstenone is predictive of political attitudes. The particular social chemical analyzed in this study is androstenone, a nonandrogenic steroid found in the sweat and saliva of many mammals, including humans. A primary reason for scholarly interest in odor detection is that it varies so dramatically from person to person. Using participants’self-reported perceptions of androstenone intensity, together with a battery of survey items testing social and political preferences and orientations, this research supports the idea that perceptions of androstenone intensity relate to political orientations—most notably, preferences for social order—lending further support to theories positing the influence of underlying biological traits on sociopolitical attitudes and behaviors.

Our understanding of the origins of public opinion has expanded from elite messaging, socialization, and group membership to include the possibility that attitudes toward group life may have some basis in our biology. That is, the social signals humans have generated and interpreted throughout the history of our species may continue to influence complex social behaviors like politics.


The odor of politics? Given the central role that olfaction plays in disgust detection and disgust’s link to politics (Aarøe, Petersen, & Arceneaux, 2017; Balzer & Jacobs, 2011; Inbar et al., 2009; Smith et al., 2011a), we have borrowed its theoretical organizational scheme to think about how olfaction may also connect to political opinions. Recent research has identified three primary functions of disgust: pathogen avoidance, mate choice, and social interaction— sometimes labeled microbes, mating, and morality (Neuberg et al., 2011; Tybur et al., 2009; Tybur et al., 2010). As mentioned, the precursor to olfaction originated as a mechanism for identifying substances that singlecelled organisms should approach or avoid.



We first investigate androstenone detection and political orientations using the aforementioned personality, psychological, and political batteries. In addition to the three measures of political ideology, the survey also tapped cognitive and personality patterns, including the Big Five personality inventory (conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, agreeableness, and extroversion), the BIS/BAS (behavioral inhibition and activation, respectively) scales, preference for literalism, and tendencies to be both disgust and threat sensitive. We have no strong expectations for the nature of the relationship between androstenone detection and these concepts, but we do expect positive relationships for all three of our political batteries and particularly for the “preferences for social order” battery, a finding that would indicate that those with politically conservative and “authority-attuned” positions tend to be more sensitive to androstenone.



In our sample, variations in androstenone detection appear to be relevant to variations in political orientations—specifically, preferences for order—but not psychological orientations. Economic and sexual morality issues appear to be unconnected to sensitivity to androstenone. As we noted earlier, the absence of a relationship with sex items is particularly interesting given that other research has demonstrated that sensitivity to pathogen-relevant disgust is indeed related to issue stances on sexual matters. Sensitivity to the human odorant androstenone appears to manifest itself politically in quite a different fashion than sensitivity to pathogen-indicating odors (e.g., human excrement, vomit, or spoiled food). Certain individuals are sensitive to the odor of androstenone, and they also tend to be the people who are attuuned to and eager to squelch threats to the social order


Psychologists, biologists, and geneticists have demonstrated human variation in every sensory system just as social scientists have been examining differences in social and political orientations and attitudes. Our work seeks to bridge these worlds in the hope of contributing to the understanding of the nature and origins of human political behavior and, broadly, public opinion. Few, if any, disciplines treat biological and behavioral variation as completely unrelated, yet much of the political science research does just that. This is a matter of empiricism. Just as parents, schools, peers, culture, and time periods may influence sociopolitical attitudes and behavior, we posit that the manner in which individuals process these environmental inputs may be just as important as the inputs themselves (Gonzalez et al., 2015). Combined with the growing body of work connecting politics to behavioral genetics and physiology, we demonstrate olfaction should not be ignored in the examination of political attitudes and orientations.”

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