BBC Future

60 Second Idea

'Smell machine invokes disgust'

Each week a global thinker from the worlds of philosophy, science, psychology or the arts is given a minute to put forward a radical, inspiring or controversial idea – no matter how improbable – that they believe would change the world.

“One of the most powerful ways to make someone feel disgusted is with a foul odour. In the lab we have used this successfully to show these foul odours can induce disgust and this disgust can change the way that people perceive and judge others around them. They are more punitive and more negative towards strangers or individuals that they are judging when they have this disgust emotion.

And perhaps because of this we go to great lengths to smell clean and good. 

 But my idea is – what if we were unable to control our own smell for the day. Suppose we were randomly smelled with a gross smell, either when we were crossing a metal detector for security or entering an automatic doorway.

Unlike a visual, disgusting reminder our noses would adjust to the smell very quickly, so to those around us we would be invoking the emotion of disgust but we might have forgotten that we actually smell bad.

We might shift the way that people treated us even if they were unaware that they were acting out of disgust – their attitudes and their behaviours towards us must have shifted. And so in that way we would learn exactly what it would be like to be a disgusting individual for one day.”

You can listen to David discuss his idea with Australian sensory scientist John Prescott and British facial surgeon Iain Hutchison in more detail on the BBC World Service programme The Forum, where you can also download more 60-second ideas.

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