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In all languages studied, suspicion is metaphorically associated with the sense of smell. The relevant smell is a smell of rotting organic matter that one may eat. In some languages, one specific smell dominates the metaphors; in English, that smell is fishy. The smell-suspicion link is presumably adaptive – if something you may eat doesn’t smell right, you better inspect it closely before proceeding. Given this link, does incidental exposure to a fishy smell make people more suspicious and does this curb gullibility? The empirical answer is a resounding Yes. Incidental exposure to a fishy smell reduces (i) trust in economic trust games and (ii) cooperation in public good games; increases (iii) the detection of misleading presuppositions in language comprehension and (iv) the detection of discrepancies between different versions of a story; (v) decreases confirmation bias and (vi) increases attempts at falsification (negative hypothesis testing). Conversely, making people suspicious through a social manipulation (vii) increases their sensitivity to fishy smells and (viii) improves smell identification. These effects emerge on classic reasoning tasks, such as the Wason rule discovery task or the Moses illusion, and standard trust games. They do not emerge for aversive smells without a metaphorical suspicion link (e.g., fart smell), but may not require that the smell is the one specified by one’s native language. We discuss the accumulating findings in the broader context of cognition as situated, experiential, embodied, and pragmatic and offer conjectures about broader implications.
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How the nose curbs gullibility -- Page 1 of 18
The smell of suspicion:
How the nose curbs gullibility
Norbert Schwarz
University of Southern California
norbert.schwarz@usc.edu
Spike W. S. Lee
University of Toronto
spike.lee@rotman.utoronto.ca
Version: 13 Sep 2018
To appear in:
Forgas, J. P. & Baumeister, R. (Eds.),
The psychology of gullibility.
Sydney Symposium of Social Psychology Series.
New York: Psychology Press.
How the nose curbs gullibility -- Page 2 of 18
Abstract. In all languages studied, suspicion is metaphorically associated with the sense of smell. The
relevant smell is a smell of rotting organic matter that one may eat. In some languages, one specific smell
dominates the metaphors; in English, that smell is fishy. The smell-suspicion link is presumably adaptive
if something you may eat doesn’t smell right, you better inspect it closely before proceeding. Given this
link, does incidental exposure to a fishy smell make people more suspicious and does this curb gullibility?
The empirical answer is a resounding Yes. Incidental exposure to a fishy smell reduces (i) trust in economic
trust games and (ii) cooperation in public good games; increases (iii) the detection of misleading
presuppositions in language comprehension and (iv) the detection of discrepancies between different
versions of a story; (v) decreases confirmation bias and (vi) increases attempts at falsification (negative
hypothesis testing). Conversely, making people suspicious through a social manipulation (vii) increases
their sensitivity to fishy smells and (viii) improves smell identification. These effects emerge on classic
reasoning tasks, such as the Wason rule discovery task or the Moses illusion, and standard trust games.
They do not emerge for aversive smells without a metaphorical suspicion link (e.g., fart smell), but may
not require that the smell is the one specified by one’s native language. We discuss the accumulating
findings in the broader context of cognition as situated, experiential, embodied, and pragmatic and offer
conjectures about broader implications.
Suspicion is a mental state of doubt, leading us to wonder whether things may not be what they seem to
be. Is the pricy gadget really as good as the sales person suggests? Did that colleague really mean it when
he complimented us, or did he merely want to make us more receptive for the request that followed a
few minutes later? And what about the faint smell of perfume on the husband’s jacket when he returned
from that conference? Not surprisingly, many observers warned that suspicion can cloud the mind and
undermine cooperation and social relationships (for a discussion from the 17th century, see Bacon, 1893).
Others observed that suspicion motivates extensive information search (e.g., Fein, 1996) and (sometimes)
sophisticated reasoning (e.g., Fein, McCloskey, & Tomlinson, 1997; Mayo, 2015) to reduce ambiguity.
These analyses usually focused on attributes of specific acts or attributes of the actor, the perceiver, and
the nature of their interdependence (e.g., Deutsch, 1958; Kee & Knox, 1970) to understand the
antecedents of suspicion
In contrast, everyday discourse often addresses suspicion in metaphorical terms that do not
reference specific acts or attributes of the actor. Instead, perceivers may simply note that something
“smells fishy” or does “not pass the smell test”. While such metaphorical expressions have long been
considered mere linguistic quirks, recent research showed that human thought about abstract concepts
is grounded in more concrete sensory experience in the physical domain, as reviewed below. Building on
this work, we tested whether incidental exposure to “smells of suspicion” is sufficient to influence
people’s behavior and trigger a ‘skeptical mindset’ (see also Mayo, this volume). This chapter summarizes
what we learned.
We first identify metaphorical links between smell and suspicion and place them in the context of
recent research into metaphors and grounded cognition. Next, we show that incidental exposure to fishy
smells is sufficient to undermine cooperation in economic trust and public good games. Turning to
suspicions’ influence on reasoning, we further show that fishy smells increase the detection of misleading
information and facilitate critical reasoning, including a more critical analysis of one’s own beliefs (see
How the nose curbs gullibility -- Page 3 of 18
also Dunning, this volume). We highlight how other manipulations of distrust produce parallel effects,
providing converging evidence for interpreting the influence of incidental smells as a case of suspicion.
The observed relationship between suspicion and smell is bidirectional: exposure to a fishy smell induces
social suspicion and the induction of suspicion through social means, conversely, increases people’s
sensitivity to metaphorically relevant odors. Taking a step back, we end the chapter by discussing the
likely evolutionary basis of the smell-suspicion link and the role of incidental sensory experiences in the
broader context of the situated, embodied, experiential, and pragmatic nature of human cognition.
Smell and Suspicion
A rapidly growing body of research highlights the role of sensory experience in cognition and
emotion (for reviews, see Barsalou, 2008; Landau, 2017; Landau, Meier, & Keefer, 2010; Lee & Schwarz,
2014; Schwarz & Lee, in press). The influences of interest are usually reflected in metaphors that link an
abstract target concept with a more concrete source concept derived from sensory or bodily experience.
For example, saying that a “warm” person discusses “weighty” matters with a “close” friend conveys social
meanings through reference to the physical dimensions of temperature, weight, and spatial distance.
More important, variations in perceivers’ sensory experience have metaphor-consistent social effects:
people perceive others as socially warmer after holding a warm rather than cold cup of coffee (Williams
& Bargh, 2008a), consider the same book more important when its heft is increased through a concealed
weight (Chandler, Reinhard, & Schwarz, 2012; Jostmann, Lakens, & Schubert, 2009), and experience more
emotional distance after having marked spatially distant rather than close points on a Cartesian plane
(Williams & Bargh, 2008b).
One of the sensory experiences metaphorically related to the psychological state of suspicion is
smell. In languages around the world, saying that something does not “smell right”, “has a smell”, or fails
to pass a “smell test” conveys that one doubts whether things are what seems to meet the eye. Linguistic
analyses of 18 languages (Soriano & Valenzuela, 2008), including Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German,
Hungarian, and Spanish, documented the smell-suspicion association in every language studied. However,
languages differ in which odor they specify as the smell of suspicion. For example, in English, the smell of
suspicion is “fishy”, in German it is “foul” and Italians catch “a whiff” that remains unspecified. This
suggests that the smell-suspicion link may be a universal conceptual metaphor with culture specific
instantiations. When a smell is specified, it is the smell of decaying organic matter that may be used as
food, suggesting that the smell-suspicion link is an evolved mechanism that protects against premature
ingestion of “suspicious” material: When you bring it close to your mouth and it doesn’t “smell right” you
better check it out more carefully it may be something that should be rejected rather than ingested.
While this conjecture provides a plausible evolutionary account for why smell may be linked with
suspicion, readers may wonder why this association should generalize beyond the assessment of smelly
substances that one may eat? As observed for many subjective experiences from bodily arousal (Zillman,
1978) to moods (Schwarz & Clore, 1983; see also Forgas, this volume), emotions (Schwarz, Servay, &
Kumpf, 1985) and metacognitive experiences of ease or difficulty (Schwarz et al., 1991)people are more
sensitive to their momentary experience than to its source (for reviews, see Schwarz, 2012; Schwarz &
Clore, 2007). Hence, they misread their experience as bearing on whatever they currently focus on, even
when the experience is elicited by an unrelated influence. We assume that the same is true for sensory
experiences of metaphorical relevance and the subjective response they elicit once a smell induces
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suspicion, it will be brought to bear on the task at hand. If so, a “suspicious” smell should influence one’s
response to a wide range of tasks to which suspicion may be relevant. Most importantly, it should reduce
interpersonal trust and cooperation and influence judgment and reasoning in ways that parallel the
influence of other manipulations of distrust and skepticism (see also Mayo, this volume). Empirically, this
is the case.
Fishy Smells Curb Social Cooperation
People are attuned to a wide variety of cues that signal whether to trust or suspect. These signals
include attributes of the target person, such as reputation (Burt & Knez, 1996), facial features (Zebrowitz,
1997), and nonverbal behaviors (Bond et al., 1992); attributes of the perceiver, such as risk calculations
(Dasgupta, 1988); and attributes of the context, such as social distance (Buchan & Croson, 2004), task
structure (Sheppard & Sherman, 1998), and risk of betrayal (Bohnet & Zeckhauser, 2004). These cues
reliably influence behavior in economic games designed to test different aspects of social cooperation
(see also Krueger, this volume). Hence, these games are a suitable tool for testing the influence of
incidental odors.
Trust games: Will the partner reciprocate?
One type of economic game addresses issues of reciprocation: If I do something beneficial for you,
will you reciprocate and do something good for me? In a typical game, decision-maker A receives an
endowment from the researcher (say, $5 in quarters) and can freely decide how much of it, if any, he or
she wants to send to decision-maker B. The researcher will increase any amount sent by some factor (say,
a factor of 4), turning, for example, A’s contribution of $2 into $8. Decision-maker B can then decide how
much, if any, of this money he or she wants to send back to decision-maker A. If A suspects that B may
walk off with the money, A should not share anything. If A trusts B to reciprocate, A should send B as much
money as possible, turning the initial $5 into $20 after the researcher quadruples it. Of that sum, a “fair”
partner would supposedly return more than A’s initial $5 – yet an unfair one may simply walk off with the
full $20. Would A’s decision be influenced by an incidental smell?
To test this possibility, we (S.W.S. Lee & Schwarz, 2012, Study 1) had an experimenter spray fish
oil, fart spray, or odorless water at a corner area in a campus building. Another experimenter, blind to
the smell condition, approached students in the hallway and invited them to participate in a one-shot
trust game with another “participant,” who was a confederate. Both players were escorted to the
sprayed area. Each player received 20 quarters ($5) and an investment form with instructions and
response space. The true participant was always approached first and designated as the sender, who
could decide how much money to send. Any amount sent would be quadrupled in value. As shown in
Figure 1, participants in the odorless condition sent $3.34 of their $5 endowment to their partner. An
incidental fishy smell significantly reduced this sum to $2.53, a drop of about 25%. This effect was
specific to the fishy smell condition and not observed for a different aversive and disgusting smell, the
smell of flatulence produced by an (aptly named) fart spray. This negative influence of fishy smells on
cooperation in one-shot trust games has been replicated by Sheaffer, Gal, and Pansky (2017, Study 1).
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Figure 1. Amount of investment in a one-shot trust game as a function of incidental smell in Study 1.
Error bars represent standard errors (adapted from S.W.S. Lee & Schwarz, 2012, study 1).
Public good games: Will the partner be a free-rider?
Another type of economic game addresses issues of free-riding: Will the partner contribute his or
her share to a common good or take a free ride and enjoy the good without making a contribution? In this
type of game, each participant receives an endowment (say, $5 in quarters) and decides how much he or
she wants to contribute to a common pool. The researcher multiplies the money in the pool by some
factor (say, 1.8). Finally, the amount in the pool is equally divided among all players, independent of what
they contributed. If player A suspects that the other player(s) will not contribute, A should simply keep
the endowment. If A can assume that the other(s) contribute as well, all are better off the larger the pool
that will be equally divided among them.
Following the procedures described above, we (S.W.S. Lee & Schwarz, 2012, Study 2) tested the
influence of incidental smells on cooperation in this game. Exposure to a fishy smell again reduced
cooperation: participants contributed $3.86 of their endowment under neutral smell conditions, but only
$2.65 under fishy smell conditions. Incidental exposure to a fart smell did not significantly affect their
contribution ($3.38).
Using a similar one-shot public good game, Sebastian, Kaufmann, and Garcia (2017) replicated the
How the nose curbs gullibility -- Page 6 of 18
negative influence of incidental fishy smells, as well as the lack of influence of fart smell, in Australia. They
also observed that a fishy smell was sufficient to overcome the influence of dispositional trust on
cooperation. In their study, a measure of dispositional trust (taken from Yamagishi & Yamagishi, 1994)
predicted participants’ contributions under neutral smell conditions but not under fishy smell conditions.
Summary
In combination, these studies highlight that incidental exposure to a subtle smell with
metaphorical meaning is sufficient to elicit suspicion about others’ motives and trustworthiness, with
adverse effects on cooperative behavior. The effect is not driven by the generic valence of the sensory
experience but by its specific metaphorical associations, as the comparisons between fishy and farty
smells indicate.
Fishy Smells Curb Gullibility
Suspicion is a mental state in which people suspect that something is wrong but are uncertain
what it might be. They wonder how things may be different from what meets the eye and are likely to
entertain alternative perspectives and interpretations to assess their plausibility. Indeed, experiences of
suspicion and distrust are associated with increased generation of alternative interpretations (Fein, 1996;
Schul, Burnstein, & Bardi, 1996), increased accessibility of opposing concepts (Schul, Mayo, & Burnstein,
2004), and more divergent reasoning (Mayer & Mussweiler, 2011). While the observation that fishy smells
curb social cooperation is indicative of reduced trust, it is silent on whether incidental exposure to fishy
smells also affects cognitive performance after all, deciding not to part from one’s money when
something feels wrong does not require complex reasoning. We therefore turned to classic reasoning
tasks to test whether incidental exposure to fishy smells curbs gullibility and increases critical thinking.
Identifying misleading information: There’s something fishy about this question
A key element of guarding against potential attempts to mislead us is the critical examination of
what others have to say: Does their utterance make sense? May things be different from what was said?
These concerns should prompt close attention to the details of a message to test whether something is
wrong. Accordingly, people should be more likely to identify misleading information when they feel
suspicious than when they do not. However, it is also conceivable that suspicion and the ‘skeptical
mindset’ it triggers foster the rejection of any information, independent of its veracity (see also Mayo,
this volume).
A task that allows researchers to assess people’s sensitivity to misleading information that is
subtly embedded in a seemingly innocuous question was developed by Erickson and Mattson (1981) and
became known as the “Moses illusion”. Participants are asked to answer trivia questions and informed
that they may or may not encounter questions that lack a correct answer if taken literally. For example,
the question “In which year did Obama fly to the moon?” presupposes something that did not happen,
making it impossible to answer with a year. Participants are asked to mark those questions as ones that
cannot be answered, while giving substantive answers to all questions that can be answered. In this
paradigm, most people who are asked “How many animals of each kind did Moses take on the Ark?”
answer Two” despite being able to report that the biblical actor was Noah, not Moses, when directly
asked (Erickson & Mattson, 1981). People fail to notice the distortion in the question because of the
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semantic overlap (Park & Reder, 2003) between Moses and Noah -- both are old men associated with
water in biblical stories. This gives the Moses question a feeling of familiarity or ‘fluency’ (see also
Unkelbach & Koch, this volume) that reduces the likelihood that people notice that something is wrong
it feels like they heard this before.
Manipulations that make the question feel less familiar attenuate the Moses illusion. In general,
familiar material is easier to process than novel material it is easier to recognize, read, pronounce, and
remember (Schwarz, 2004, 2015). But not everything that is easy to process is also familiar. Instead, the
ease of processing may be due to other variables, such as a difficult to read print font, poor color contrast,
or a hard to understand accent. Unfortunately, people are more sensitive to their feelings than to where
their feelings come from. They therefore misread ease of processing as bearing on what they are thinking
about, even when it is merely due to an incidental variable, such as the print font (see also Forgas, this
volume). Hence, Song and Schwarz (2008) found that 88% of their participants failed to notice the
distortion in the Moses question when it was presented in an easy to read print font (black Arial 12),
whereas only 53% failed to notice when it was presented in a difficult to read print font (grey Brush script
12).
This experimental paradigm provides a test of the potential influence of fishy smells: Would an
incidental fishy smell make it more likely that people notice something is wrong with Moses? To find out,
we included the above Moses question and its likes in a questionnaire that participants completed in a
booth that did or did not have a fishy odor (D. Lee, Kim, & Schwarz, 2015, Study 1). Participants received
instructions from an experimenter who was blind to conditions and were then assigned to an
experimental booth in which another experimenter had attached a small piece of paper sprayed with fish
oil (or water) under the table. As expected, an incidental fishy smell attenuated the Moses illusion.
Whereas 83.3% of participants in the neutral smell condition failed to notice that something was wrong
with Moses, only 58.1% failed to notice in the fishy smell condition. We also included an undistorted
question, “Which country is famous for cuckoo clocks, chocolate, banks, and pocket knives?”. The correct
answer is “Switzerland” and participants’ performance on this question was unaffected by the smell to
which they were exposed, indicating that the smell of suspicion elicited critical analysis rather than a
general tendency to reject statements as misleading.
In a different experimental paradigm, introduced by Loftus, Miller, and Burns (1978), misleading
questions are used to implant false memories. In a typical study, participants see a series of slides that
visually portray an event, for example, an accident involving a car and a pedestrian. Next, they answer
questions about the event and some of these questions include a misleading proposition; for example,
participants may be asked whether the car stopped at the stop sign, even though there was no stop sign
in the scene they saw. After a delay, people who were asked a question that implied the presence of a
stop sign erroneously “recognize” a stop sign as having been part of what they saw. This false memory
effect is attenuated when participants are alerted that something may be wrong with the questions asked
(Green, Flynn, & Loftus, 1982) or when a negative mood provides a more general problem signal (see
Forgas, this volume). Would a fishy smell similarly protect people against false memories? To find out,
Sheaffer and her colleagues (2017, Study 2) presented the misleading questions in a room that had been
sprayed with a fishy or a pleasant smell. Next, they tested their participantsrecognition memory 48 hours
later, in a neutral smell context. Those who had thought about the questions in the presence of a fishy
smell were now less likely to erroneously “recognize” objects that were mentioned in the questions, but
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absent in the original scene. Presumably, suspicion at the time of reading the questions resulted in closer
scrutiny, which reduced the impact of the misleading information.
In combination, the Moses study (D. Lee et al., 2015, Study 1) and false memory study (Sheaffer
et al., 2017, Study 2) converge on indicating that olfactory suspicion cues can curb gullibility. In the Moses
study, an incidental fishy smell improved the identification of a misleading question without inducing a
bias to falsely identify an undistorted question as problematic. In the false memory study, an incidental
fishy smell decreased the likelihood that elements of the question were incorporated into the memory of
the scene, presumably because participants noticed that something may be wrong with the question.
Future research may fruitfully address whether fishy smells can also influence the impressions we form of
other people, even when those people do not engage in any suspicious behavior. To date, research into
suspicion effects in person perception has focused on conditions where suspicion is elicited by information
about the target person (Fein, 1996; Hilton & Darley, 1991) and has largely neglected the potential
influence of incidental suspicion.
Thinking critically about one’s own thoughts: May I be wrong?
Suspicion pertains to things others do or say. Hence, the influence of olfactory suspicion cues
may be limited to how we think about information presented by others, as in the above experiments.
However, incidental influences on how we feel and think usually generalize to unrelated tasks, as has been
observed for moods and emotions (for a review, see Schwarz & Clore, 2007), distrust (for reviews, see
Mayo, 2015, this volume), and a wide range of cognitive procedures (for a review, see Xu & Schwarz, 2018;
see also Fiedler; Krueger; Strack; and Unkelbach & Koch, this volume). Hence, the distrust elicited
reasoning shifts observed in the preceding studies may carry over to how critically we examine our own
thoughts.
Wason’s (1960) classic rule discovery task lends itself to testing this possibility. In this task,
participants are asked to discover the rule underlying the number series 246. Most assume that the
rule is “+2”. Next, they are instructed to test their assumption by generating a number series that the
experimenter will mark as consistent or inconsistent with the correct rule. Following this feedback,
participants can correct their hypothesis and state what they now think the correct rule is.
In all published studies, people overwhelmingly rely on a positive-testing strategy (Klayman & Ha,
1987) and generate number series that are consistent with their hypothesis (e.g., 6810; for a review,
see Oswald & Grosjean, 2004). The feedback they receive on these series always informs them that their
series is compatible with the rule. Although correct, this affirmative feedback does not allow them to
recognize that their hypothesis is false. The correct rule is, somewhat sneakily, Any increasing series of
numbers”. Participants can only discover the correct rule when they generate at least some series that
can falsify their own +2-hypothesis. Hence, discovery of the correct rule is facilitated by a negative testing
strategy, aimed at disconfirmation, and impaired by a positive testing strategy, aimed at confirmation (for
a review, see Oswald & Grosjean, 2004).
If distrust and suspicion make people consider how things may be otherwise, they may facilitate
a negative testing strategy and hence improve detection of the correct rule. Indeed, Mayo, Alfasi, and
Schwarz (2014, Study 1) observed that people who are very low in dispositional trust perform better on
this task than people high in dispositional trust. Moreover, experimentally inducing distrust through
exposure to an untrustworthy face increases the prevalence of negative hypothesis testing, again resulting
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in improved rule discovery (Mayo et al., 2014, Study 2; see also Mayo, this volume). Would the presence
of an incidental smell similarly induce people to be more critical in testing their own, self-generated
hypotheses?
To find out, participants had to work on Wason’s (1960) rule discovery task in a cubicle that had
a fishy or neutral smell (D. Lee et al., 2015, Study 2). They first received their instructions from an
experimenter who was blind to conditions and were then assigned to a cubicle that another experimenter
had prepared with the respective smell. After generating six test series, participants called the
experimenter and received feedback on their series. Finally, they reported what they now thought the
rule was, given the feedback they received.
The results parallel the findings of Mayo and colleagues (2014). Overall, all participants generated
more confirmatory than disconfirmatory number series, independent of smell condition. Nevertheless,
smell significantly influenced whether participants made any attempt to disconfirm. Specifically, 47.7%
(21 out of 44) of the participants assigned to the fishy cubicle listed as least one negative hypothesis,
whereas only 27.7% (13 out of 47) of those assigned to the neutral smelling cubicle did so. This difference
in testing strategy is also reflected in the likelihood of discovering the correct rule. Whereas only 6.4% of
the participants in the neutral smell condition discovered the correct rule, 20.5% in the fishy smell
condition did so.
Sebastian and colleagues (2017) replicated this result in Australia, adding a fart spray condition as
an additional control. In their study, participants exposed to an incidental fishy smell were twice as likely
to generate at least one negative hypothesis test than participants exposed to an incidental fart smell.
The latter condition did not significantly differ from a neutral smell condition, again indicating that the
influence of fishy smells does not merely reflect their aversive or disgusting nature (S.W.S. Lee & Schwarz,
2012).
Summary
In combination, the reviewed studies indicate that incidental exposure to olfactory cues that are
metaphorically related to suspicion can curb gullibility. They make people more likely to scrutinize
information they receive from others, which increases the correct identification of misleading questions
(D. Lee et al., 2015, Study 1) and reduces the generation of false memories (Sheaffer et al., 2017, Study
2). This more critical approach to information is not limited to the examination of material presented by
others, but can carry over to assessments of one’s own thoughts. When asked to test their own, self-
generated hypotheses, people take a more critical approach to testing when exposed to a smell of
suspicion (D. Lee et al., 2015, Study 2; Sebastian et al., 2017). This influence of olfactory cues parallels the
influence of other cues that something may be wrong, including chronic or temporary distrust (Mayo et
al., 2014) and low processing fluency (Song & Schwarz, 2008).
Suspicion Increases Sensitivity to Fishy Smells
The reviewed findings are consistent with metaphors that associate suspicion with smell. The
representational structure of these metaphors implies a unidirectional influence from smell to suspicion.
However, such unidirectional metaphors can nevertheless produce bidirectional associations between
their core concepts, as we discuss in detail elsewhere (S.W.S. Lee & Schwarz, 2012; S.W.S. Lee, 2016; see
also, Ijzerman & Koole, 2011). Indeed, inducing social suspicion increases perceivers’ sensitivity to fishy
How the nose curbs gullibility -- Page 10 of 18
smells without affecting their sensitivity to other smells.
Figure 2. Confidence ratings for smell presence as a function of fish oil concentration with and
without suspicion. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals (adapted from S.W.S. Lee & Schwarz,
2012, study 7).
In several studies, we handed participants a set of test tubes containing fragrance oils or food
substances, such as cinnamon, orange nectar, minced onion, and fish oil. Participants sniffed each tube
and wrote down any smell that came to mind (S.W.S. Lee & Schwarz, 2012, studies 3a to 3c). Prior to this
task, the experimenter did or did not engage in behavior that suggested she may be hiding something,
thus eliciting participants’ suspicion. Three variants of this procedure, using different combinations and
intensities of pleasant and unpleasant smells, converged on the same conclusion: a socially induced state
of suspicion significantly enhances the correct identification of fishy smells. When the fishy smell was
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blatant and 50% of participants identified it correctly without suspicion, suspicion increased identification
to 72.5%; when the smell was subtle and only 6.7% identified it without suspicion, suspicion increased
correct identification to 33.3%. In contrast, suspicion did not significantly influence the identification of
any of the other smells.
Additional research showed that suspicion selectively increases people’s ability to detect subtle
fishy smells presented at low levels of concentration (S.W.S. Lee & Schwarz, 2012, Study 7). In this study,
participants received 31 test flasks that contained either no odor or the target odor (fish oil or fart spray)
at three different levels of concentration. They were asked to identify whether the target odor was
present. As shown in Figure 2, compared with non-suspicious participants, suspicious participants’
confidence ratings increased more sharply with the concentration of fish oil, indicating that it increased
their sensitivity to low levels of the odor. This was not observed for fart spray, indicating that the effect
of suspicion is limited to metaphorically associated smells and does not generalize to other smells of an
unpleasant nature. Equally important, suspicion did not increase participants’ overall confidence ratings
for fish oil or fart spray, indicating that it did not induce a response bias. Instead, the effect was limited to
low levels of concentration of the metaphorically related smell, documenting increased odor specific
sensory sensitivity.
Perspectives on Gullibility:
The Situated, Experiential, Embodied, and Pragmatic Mind
The findings we reviewed in this chapter can be discussed from the perspective of evolutionary,
cognitive, affective, and embodied theorizing. It is tempting to favor one or the other to identify the “real”
process underlying the observed bidirectional relationships between olfactory cues, feeling, and thinking.
However, the different theoretical perspectives are not mutually exclusive and we conclude this chapter
with a discussion of their interplay.
Evolution
That smell and suspicion are associated in different cultures and languages around the globe
(Soriano & Valenzuela, 2008) suggests a universal metaphorical association with culture specific
implementations. From an evolutionary perspective, it would be adaptive to step back and take the time
for closer inspection when something that one may touch or ingest does not smell right. Indeed, a hesitant
response to things that have the wrong smell is shared by many organisms (Herz, 2011). To be adaptive,
this response should not be limited to the smell that is specified in the metaphors of one’s culture but
should also be elicited by other smells that pose the same adaptive problem. If so, a fishy smell should
elicit suspicion even when one’s culture that does not specify “fishy” as the smell of suspicion. The limited
available evidence is compatible with this prediction. As noted earlier, Sheaffer and colleagues (2017)
observed that fishy smells undermined cooperation in a public goods game (study 1) and attenuated the
impact of misleading information (study 2). Importantly, they obtained these results with Israeli
participants in studies administered in Hebrew, a language that does not specify “fishy” as the smell of
suspicion. Future research may fruitfully explore the influence of a broader range of odors across a
broader range of cultures and languages.
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Metaphors
From an evolutionary perspective, smell-suspicion metaphors are themselves an expression of an
evolved adaptive mechanism. But this does not preclude that the culture specific implementations of the
general smell-suspicion metaphor can have a unique causal impact (see also Baumeister, this volume).
Several aspects of this assumption are worth systematic testing. One pertains to the relative impact of
different smells. Frequent exposure to the metaphors of one’s culture should strengthen the link between
suspicion and the culturally specified smell, which should make this particular smell more influential than
other adaptively relevant smells. We would expect, for example, that “fishy” as well as “foul” smells can
elicit suspicion in Americans as well as Germans but that both respond more strongly to the smell specified
in their respective cultural metaphors. Unfortunately, any test of differences in the relative impact of
different smells requires a calibration of smell intensity, which is a challenging task: how much of a fishy
smell is equivalent to how much of a foul smell?
More tractable is the influence of semantic representation. The smell specified by one’s cultural
metaphors becomes part of one’s knowledge about suspicion. Hence, the general rules of knowledge
accessibility apply. Indeed, priming English speakers with concepts of suspicion increases the accessibility
of fish related concepts (S.W.S. Lee & Schwarz, 2012, study 5). This makes them more likely, for example,
to complete the letter string “FI__ING” with FISHING rather than FITTING, FILLING or another applicable
word. The increased accessibility of fish related concepts, in turn, facilitates the correct identification of
fishy smells (S.W.S. Lee & Schwarz, 2012, study 6). Theoretically, semantic representations provide a
cognitive pathway for mutual influences between concepts related to suspicion and concepts related to
smell that are independent of a concurrent online experience of suspicion. We assume that such
knowledge effects are language based and culture specific, making it unlikely, for example, that concepts
of suspicion would prime fish related concepts for German participants.
Feelings
Smell is just one of many variables that can elicit suspicion (see Forgas, this volume). Indeed, most
research into suspicion and distrust has used other manipulations, ranging from memories of bad
experiences to attributes of one’s interaction partner (Burt & Knez, 1997) and incidental exposure to
distrust worthy faces (Mayo et al., 2014). More important, such manipulations have produced results that
parallel the impact of smells, as noted throughout this chapter (see Mayo, 2015, this volume). These
parallel effects highlight that the experience of suspicion is sufficient to reduce social cooperation and
gullibility, independent of its specific induction.
As observed in many domains, people are more sensitive to their subjective experiences than to
where these experiences come from. Hence, they misread their current feelings and fleeting thoughts as
part of their response to whatever is in the focus of their attention. This influences the judgments they
form and the processing strategy they choose, as conceptualized in feelings-as-information theory (for
reviews, see Schwarz, 2012; Schwarz & Clore, 2007). From this perspective, incidental feelings of suspicion
undermine cooperation because they are misperceived as part of one’s response to the partner and the
nature of the game. If participants became aware of the incidental nature of their feeling, its
informational value would be undermined and its influence attenuated or eliminated as has been
observed for moods (Schwarz & Clore, 1983), emotions (Schwarz, Servay & Kumpf, 1985), bodily arousal
(Zillman, 1978) and metacognitive experiences of ease and difficulty (Sanna, Schwarz, & Small, 2002).
How the nose curbs gullibility -- Page 13 of 18
Hence, subtle smells are likely to be more influential than intense smells, which attract more attention
and carry a higher risk of awareness. Because feelings are associated with semantic and episodic
information about circumstances in which they are experienced (Bower, 1981; Bower & Forgas, 2001),
they also bring to mind related declarative information that further feeds into judgment (for a review, see
Forgas, 2001).
In addition to serving as input into a judgment, feelings inform people about the nature of the
current situation. As assumed by many accounts of situated cognition (for a review, see Smith & Semin,
2004), thought processes are tuned to meet the requirements of the situation at hand. Feelings play a key
role in this tuning process by providing rapidly available information about the situation at hand (Schwarz,
1990, 2002), usually preceding careful analysis (Zajonc, 1980). When distrust and suspicion signal that
things may not be what they seem, processing is oriented towards potential alternative interpretations of
reality (see Mayo, 2015, this volume). As reviewed above, this influence is sufficient to overcome one of
the most robust biases in the psychology of reasoning, namely reliance on confirmatory hypothesis testing
strategies (D. Lee et al., 2015; Mayo et al., 2014).
Importantly, suspicion is not the only feeling that can reliably influence people’s reasoning
strategies. As observed decades ago, people pay less attention to the quality of an argument and are less
likely to elaborate on its implications when they are in a happy rather than sad mood (Bless, Bohner,
Schwarz, & Strack, 1990). Hence, weak arguments are more persuasive when the audience is in a positive
mood, whereas strong arguments are more persuasive when the audience is in a negative mood. Both
effects reflect that recipients think less about the message when they feel good rather than bad, leading
them to miss its weak as well as strong points (for a review, see Schwarz, Bless, & Bohner, 1991).
Particularly relevant in the context of gullibility is the metacognitive experience of processing fluency,
which figures prominently in intuitive assessments of truth (for reviews, see Schwarz, 2018; Schwarz,
Newman, & Leach, 2016; see also Fiedler; Strack; and Unkelbach & Koch, this volume). In a nutshell,
people’s assessments of the veracity of a claim are dominated by five criteria: Is the claim compatible with
other things I believe? Is it internally consistent? Does it come from a credible source? Are there many
supporting arguments? Do others think so as well? Each of these criteria can be evaluated by drawing on
relevant details (an effortful analytic strategy) or by attending to the ease with which the content can be
processed (a less effortful intuitive strategy). As a large body of experimental research (reviewed in
Schwarz, 2018) indicates, fluent processing provides an affirmative answer to each of these truth tests,
even when more careful processing would identify the claim as faulty. Hence, any variable that increases
processing fluency from repetition (e.g., Hasher, Goldstein, & Toppino, 1977; Unkelbach & Koch, this
volume) and color contrast (e.g., Reber & Schwarz, 1999) to rhyme (e.g., McGlone & Tofighbakhsh, 2000),
ease of pronunciation (e.g., Newman et al., 2014) and audio quality (e.g., Newman & Schwarz, 2018)
also increases acceptance of the fluently processed message, whereas disfluency curbs acceptance of the
message.
Situated, experiential, embodied, and pragmatic
While each of these perspectives sheds light on some aspect of the reviewed research, it is useful
to consider their interplay in the overall picture of human feeling and thinking. As William James (1890)
emphasized, thinking is for doing. We do things in specific contexts and our pragmatic pursuits benefit
from close attention to the situation at hand. This renders the abundantly observed context sensitivity of
How the nose curbs gullibility -- Page 14 of 18
human cognition beneficial, occasional errors and biases notwithstanding (Schwarz, 2007; Smith & Semin,
2004). Feelings play a key role in this process by providing fast information about the situation at hand,
often before relevant sources can be identified (Zajonc, 1980). Moreover, we interact with the world
through our bodies and experience it through our senses. This makes sensorimotor information important
and, in evolutionary terms, ancient building blocks for knowledge representation and reasoning (Barsalou,
2008; Lakoff & Johnson, 1999). As the rapidly accumulating evidence for embodied cognition illustrates,
higher mental processes are scaffolded onto phylogenetically and ontogenetically older sensorimotor
processes, reflecting that evolution is largely a recycle and reuse enterprise (Anderson, 2010,2014). Many
of these linkages are reflected in conceptual metaphors (Lakoff & Johnson, 1999) that have stimulated
extensive research into the role of sensorimotor inputs in human judgment and decision making (for
reviews, see Landau, 2017; Lee & Schwarz, 2014; Schwarz & Lee, in press). The picture that emerges
emphasizes the situated, experiential, embodied and pragmatic nature of human cognition and these
features “seep” into everything we do, allowing an incidental fishy smell to impair social cooperation and
to curb our gullibility.
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... One of the variables that helps us not to be suckers is a feeling that is distinctly at odds with the frequent emphasis on prosocial components of IH, namely distrust. Numerous experiments show that dispositional as well as situational distrust improve critical thinking as indicated by a broader consideration of alternatives, more accurate inferences, and improved error detection (for reviews, see Mayo, 2015Mayo, , 2019Schwarz & Lee, 2019). Throughout, distrust directs attention to how things might be otherwise, which highlights the fallibility of claims and benefits critical evaluation of the evidence. ...
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To evaluate whether a claim is likely to be true, people attend to whether it is compatible with other things they know, internally consistent and plausible, supported by evidence, accepted by others, and offered by a credible source. Each criterion can be evaluated by drawing on relevant details (an effortful analytic strategy) or by attending to the ease with which the claim can be processed (a less effortful intuitive strategy). Easy processing favors acceptance under all criteria – when thoughts flow smoothly, people nod along. Ease of processing is also central to aesthetic appeal and easily processed materials are evaluated as prettier. This sheds new light on why beauty and truth are often seen as related, by poets and scientists alike. Because people are more sensitive to their feelings than to where their feelings come from, numerous incidental variables can influence perceived beauty and truth by influencing the perceiver’s processing experience.
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Results Background Method Conclusions References Participants were 112 (70.5% female) undergraduate psychology students and a sample of convenience, mean age 28.92 (SD = 9.79).
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