Helping Behavior Commitments in the Presence of Odors: Vanilla, Lavender, and No Odor
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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GRIMES, M.B. (1999). Helping Behavior Commitments in the Presence of Odors: Vanilla, Lavender, and No Odor. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 2. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Helping Behavior Commitments in the Presence of Odors: Vanilla, Lavender, and No Odor

Sponsored by: JANIE WILSON (
Increases in the occurrence of helping behaviors in the presence of a food-associated odor have been attributed to elevated mood. The present study examined the effects of odor on mood and amount of time offered by participants to volunteer. Participants were exposed to one of three odors: no odor, vanilla odor, and lavender odor. Mood scales and questionnaires pertaining to commitment of time to volunteer were given to all participants. Odor did not affect mood. This may be explained by a ceiling effect produced by the method used to ensure adequate odor exposure. Vanilla odor led to an increase in reported time to volunteer as compared to lavender odor and no odor. This may be explained by the food-association of vanilla and early experiences that link food with positive events.

Research has indicated various factors that affect helping behavior. One factor found to be a predictor of whether or not one performs a helping behavior is the situation in which the behavior is requested. If circumstances surrounding the request are viewed as embarrassing or inappropriate, the occurrence of helping behavior decreases considerably as compared to those who perceive the circumstances to be ideal. Therefore, circumstances should be pleasant and comfortable if helping behavior is to be promoted (Cann & Blackwelder, 1984). Another factor that affects helping behavior is mood. Some research suggests that helping behavior is associated with better moods (Williamson & Clark, 1989; Yinon & Landau, 1987). Mood has been manipulated in a variety of ways depending on the purpose of the research (Feldt, Jagodzinski, & McKinley, 1997). In natural settings, mood can depend on anything from the mood of co-workers (Totterdell, Kellett, Teuchmann, & Briner, 1998) to the absence of a desired substance such as alcohol (Litt, Cooney, Kadden, & Gaupp, 1990). Such findings demonstrate the possibility of using many factors as manipulators of mood. Distinguishing between effective and ineffective manipulation factors could prove to be useful for treating mood disorders or enhancing worker productivity in occupations such as healthcare (Martin, 1996), businesses, and work environments (Totterdell et. al., 1998). Controversy abounds as to how mood affects helping, under what circumstances it affects helping, or if mood actually even has any impact on helping behaviors at all. One recurring topic of study is the influence of positive mood on helping behavior. Participants who expect an enhancement in mood to continue after performing a helping behavior only continue helping to the extent that they believe it will preserve this elated mood (Yinon & Landau, 1987). One plausible explanation for the increase in helping behavior as found in some studies is that elated mood leads to helping behavior in which social gratification and praise by observers is increased. Acceptance by others seems to be enough reinforcement for this type of helper (Cunningham, Shaffer, Barbee, Wolff, & Kelley, 1990). In contrast, Feldt and colleagues (1997) did not find a significant relationship between mood and helping in another study. Although better examination scores were significantly correlated with an increase in mood, high compliance for helping was observed regardless of mood-state (Feldt et. al., 1997). This finding may have been due to the simplicity of the task requested. Participants were required to check for spelling errors in a list of names that took only a few minutes to complete. Proposing a situation in which participants would be required to devote more time and effort could lead to more accurate results (Feldt et. al., 1997). Although the ability of positive mood to increase helping behaviors seems reasonable, negative mood may also lead to an increase in helping behavior in an attempt to elevate mood (Schaller & Cialdini, 1988). Negative mood has also been found to increase helping behavior more than positive mood when negative mood is associated with guilt or a feeling of responsibility. For example, if someone in a negative mood bumped into someone causing them to trip and fall, he or she would be much more likely to help the other person than those in a positive mood (Job, 1987). Similarly, Job (1987) found that football fans of a losing team were more likely to help than those of a winning team shortly after the game. When a stamped and addressed envelope was placed on their windshields, fans of the losing team mailed the letter more often than fans of the winning team. Even though fans of the losing team were more than likely experiencing a negative mood, guilt or a sense of responsibility does not explain their increased helping behavior because neither was present. Negative mood is also suggested to lead to helping behavior if the task is not socially oriented and involves minimal social contact. This is in contrast to the social helper (above paragraph) who prefers the reinforcement of praise when helping (Cunningham, Shaffer, Barbee, Wolff, & Kelley, 1990). In addition to helping behavior, mood has been linked with odor. Lorig and Schwartz (1988) found that participants exposed to spiced apple and eucalyptus odors reported less anxiety and tension than those exposed to lavender. A follow-up study found that participants exposed to undetectable levels of spiced apple and lavender odors reported being less happy than those exposed to medium and high concentration of the odors (Lorig, Herman, Schwartz, & Cain, 1990). Odor has also been linked with mood in the form of memory retrieval. Happy memories are retrieved much more often in the presence of a pleasant fragrance than in the presence of an unpleasant fragrance. This indicates elevated mood in the presence of pleasant fragrances. (Erlichman & Halpern, 1988). Ludvigson and Rottman (1989) also examined the effects of odor on mood. In their study, the effect of odor on mood was complex and seemed to depend on the characteristics of each individual person. When asked to engage in a task in the presence of lavender odor, participants enjoyed the experimental process more than those in the presence of clove odor. This seems to indicate an enhancement of mood in the presence of lavender. However, a second trial revealed that lavender actually lowered affect (indicative of negative mood) in participants initially exposed to no odor (Ludvigson & Rottman, 1989). These findings regarding the effects of lavender by Ludvigson and Rottman (1989), Lorig and Schwartz (1988), and Lorig and colleagues (1990) are difficult to explain. They may be arbitrary or perhaps concentration of odor and order of exposure can have specific effects on mood that are yet to be determined. Since mood and helping behavior have an established relationship, although the exact nature is not clear, odor may also affect helping behavior. Baron (1997) used this premise when examining the helping behavior of passersby in a shopping mall. Participants were much more likely to engage in helping behavior in the presence of a pleasant odor emitted by a bakery or coffee shop than participants not in the presence of such an odor. This finding was explained by an enhancement of affect due to the desirable fragrance. It was hypothesized that this elevation in mood led to the increase in helping behaviors (Baron, 1997). The present study served as an extension of previous research to determine the effect of odor on mood and the effect of odor on helping behavior. It has been established that participants exposed to food-associated smells increase their helping behavior as compared to those exposed to no smell (Baron, 1997). They also exhibit an increase in positive affect, indicating elevated mood, as compared to those in a neutral odor group (Baron, 1997). It is important to establish that these findings are due to the pleasant fragrance independent of the fact that the odors in the above research are associated with food. Therefore, two types of fragrances were necessary to establish that a pleasant fragrance, regardless of its association with food, would increase mood as well as helping behavior. A vanilla spray was used as representative of a food-associated pleasant fragrance, and lavender was representative of a non-food pleasant fragrance. A neutral group that received no odor was also necessary for comparison and control purposes. It was hypothesized that the groups exposed to the two pleasant fragrances, both food and non-food smells, would exhibit an increase in mood as well as an increase in helping behavior as compared to the neutral odor group. Due to the mixed results discussed previously concerning lavender, differences between both helping behavior and mood were expected in participants exposed to the vanilla fragrance and those exposed to the lavender fragrance.


Thirty-three (27 females and 6 males) undergraduate psychology majors from a southeastern university participated in this study. Participants were from psychological-statistics and research-methods classes.

Participants first signed an informed-consent form. After the forms were collected, students were exposed to one of three levels of odors: food odor, non-food odor, and neutral odor. Vanilla spray was representative of a food odor; lavender was representative of a non-food odor; and no smell was added to the neutral group. Mood scales were sprayed with vanilla spray, lavender spray, or no spray immediately before being presented to participants. Before completing the scales, students were required to put their left ear to the scale for thirty seconds and then their right ear for thirty seconds. This ensured adequate exposure to the odors and kept treatment similar in the control condition. Participants in each level then completed the mood scales to determine their current moods. A Likert-type scale was used to measure mood, with 1 being "extremely negative" and 6 being "extremely positive." Scales were collected, and participants were given a questionnaire in which their willingness to devote time to volunteering, a form of helping behavior, was measured. Participants reported the number of minutes per week they would be willing to volunteer. In order to convince them that the question was legitimate and may involve a commitment, participants were given an opportunity to explain their response and were required to leave their name and address if they agreed to volunteer. Participants were debriefed and thanked for their time.

Two one-way, between-subjects ANOVAs were used to analyze these data. Odor did not affect mood [F(2, 30)=.16, p>.05], with ratings of mood similar for participants exposed to no odor (M=4.25, SEM=.45), vanilla odor (M=3.93, SEM=.29), and lavender odor (M=3.91, SEM=.56). However, odor did affect helping behavior [F(2, 30)=5.11, p<.05]. Vanilla odor led to an increase in commitment to volunteer (M=349.29, SEM=70.43) as compared to lavender odor (M=150.00, SEM=34.32) or no odor (M=110.63, SEM=40.38). (See Figure 1.) Post hoc comparisons were made using Fisher`s protected t-tests (p<.05).

Participants exposed to no odor, vanilla odor, and lavender odor did not differ significantly in mood. The requirement that participants place the mood scale to their ears for a specified amount of time generated laughter among the participants, which may have greatly influenced mood. Since laughter can lead to an increase in mood (Mannell & McMahon, 1982), resultant high mood ratings may indicate a ceiling effect for the dependent measure. This probable effect could be eliminated in future studies by presenting odors using another method such as spraying the entire room before testing participants. An alternate explanation may be the effect that a previous experiment had on students` mood. Immediately prior to the present study, participants engaged in a study in which they were read a story. Perhaps the story elevated mood and therefore diminished the effect of subsequent odors on mood. Future research would need to ensure that participants did not engage in any other studies immediately prior to the study at hand. A final explanation may be that all three levels elevated mood. Vanilla and lavender are generally considered pleasant and, consequently, both may have elevated mood. Even though no odor was added to the control condition, perhaps the smell of the classroom was already considered pleasant to the participants without the addition of any extra odors. Presenting a foul or unpleasant odor such as sulfur as one of the conditions could better test this in future research. Baron`s (1997) hypothesis that pleasant, food-associated smells lead to elevated mood was not supported in this study; however, an increase in helping behavior in the presence of a food-associated odor was replicated in this study. Participants exposed to vanilla odor offered to devote more time volunteering than those exposed to lavender or no odor. A plausible explanation for this could be that food smells are associated with positive events. From early childhood, the use of food as a reinforcer causes an association between food and positive events. This link may have enhanced helping behavior. Also, findings linking lavender to negative mood (Lorig & Schwartz, 1988; Ludvigson & Rottman, 1989) may have led to the decrease in minutes willing to volunteer in this group as compared to the vanilla odor group. An alternate explanation is that the vanilla simply smelled better than the lavender in this experiment. Perhaps the particular brands used emitted distinctive odors that are not found in other brands. Similarly, lavender may have been aversive due to the strength of the perfume sprayed. Participants consistently acknowledged the strength of the smell in the lavender group but not in the vanilla or no odor groups. Different brands could be used in future research to determine if the smell of certain brands can influence the outcome.

Baron, R.A. (1997). The sweet smell of helping: Effects of pleasant ambient fragrance on prosocial behavior in shopping malls. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 23 (5), 498-503. Cann, A. & Blackwelder, J.G. (1984). Compliance and mood: A field investigation of the impact of embarrassment. The Journal of Psychology, 117, 221-226. Cunningham, M.R., Shaffer, D.R., Barbee, A.P., Wolff, P.L., & Kelley, D.J. (1990). Separate processes in the relation of elation and depression to helping: Social versus personal concerns. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 26, 13-33. Ehrlichman, H., & Halpern, J.N. (1988). Affect and memory: Effects of pleasant and unpleasant odors on retrieval of happy and unhappy memories. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 55 (5), 769-779. Feldt, R.C., Jagodzinski, M., & McKinley, K. (1997). Examination-related feedback, mood, and helping: A correlational study. Psychological Reports, 80, 239-242. Job, R.F. (1987). The effect of mood on helping behavior. The Journal of Social Psychology, 127 (4), 323-328. Litt, M.D., Cooney, N.L., Kadden, R.M., & Gaupp, L. (1990). Reactivity to alcohol cues and induced moods in alcoholics. Addictive Behaviors, 15, 137-146. Lorig, T.S., Herman, K.B., Schwartz, G.E., & Cain, W.S. (1990). EEG activity during administration of low-concentration odors. Bulletin of the Psychonomic Society, 28 (5), 405-408. Lorig, T.S., & Schwartz, G.E. (1988). Brain and odor: I. Alteration of human EEG by odor administration. Psychobiology, 16 (3), 281-284. Ludvigson, H.W., & Rottman, T.R. (1989). Effects of ambient odors of lavender and cloves on cognition, memory, affect and mood. Chemical Senses, 14 (4), 525-536. Mannell, R.C., & McMahon, L. (1982). Humor as play: Its relationship to psychological well-being during the course of a day. Leisure Sciences, 5 (2), 143-155. Martin, N. (1996). Olfactory remediation: Current evidence and possible applications. Social Science Medicine, 43 (1), 63-70. Schaller, M., & Cialdini, R.B. (1988). The economics of empathetic helping: Support for a mood management motive. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 24, 163-181. Totterdell, P., Kelett, S., Teuchmann, K., & Briner, R.B. (1998). Evidence of mood linkage in work groups. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74 (6), 1504-1515. Williamson, G.M., & Clark, M.S. (1989). Providing help and desired relationship type as determinants of changes in moods and self-evaluations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 56 (5), 722-734. Yinon, Y., & Landau, M.O. (1987). On the reinforcing value of helping behavior in a positive mood. Motivation and Emotion, 11 (1), 83-93.

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