The Nose Knows: Gut-Level Attraction and Repulsion

Kerry Bailey wrote in his blog recently:

…for some reason I can’t quite pin down I hate morbidly obese people. Just something about them fills me with this unexplainable anger. It’s like this weird sort of intolerance or racism that I’m not quite sure how to squelch. …

It’s somewhat ironic that I, as a gay man, have – in those instances – so little tolerance. Anyone got any ideas as to how to defeat those “ARRRRRRRGHGHGHG urges” ?

…which inspired me to write down something I’ve been thinking about for a long time.

It seems (to researchers, not just to me) that our brains subconsciously recognize people who are fit for us to mate with – or not – and we feel attraction accordingly. One instrument of this subconscious evaluation of fitness is the nose. I began wondering about this many years ago, thanks to experiences with my own sense of smell.

In high school I started “going with” Kris, who seemed well suited to me in geekiness, interests, etc. But an incompatibility soon became evident: he smelled wrong. Really bad, in fact. Not as in “didn’t take a shower,” but there was something about his personal smell that was absolutely repellent to me. I told him about it, and he tried new deodorants, colognes, etc., but nothing helped. I finally broke up with him essentially because of this. I felt mean and shallow about it: I liked him otherwise, but just couldn’t bear the smell of him. It seemed so irrational, and he was deeply hurt.

Years later, I met Enrico. We had a picnic together with the friend who introduced us, ended up at a party together the same evening, went to a concert on the green, then to a disco, then to his place and to bed. It was a hot summer night and, as I lay there with my nose literally in his sweaty armpit, I thought: “This guy smells good!” We’ve been together for 20 years now, 17 of them married, and have a gorgeous, healthy daughter. Obviously, he was a good match for me, and my nose knew it instantly. He still smells good to me today.

Some years later I read an article in the Economist on studies showing that humans unconsciously recognize via smell people with whom they are well suited to reproduce (suited in terms of immune factors – the more different these factors are between the parents, the healthier the offspring). In the words of Cole Porter: “It’s a chemical reaction, that’s all.”

An older woman friend to whom I told this story was relieved to hear it. She was dating a man whom her family thought ideal for her (interesting, well-off, etc.). There was no rational reason for her not to like this guy, and in fact she did like him – but not the smell of him, for which she felt the same kind of visceral repulsion I had felt with Kris. She was past reproductive age, but, nonetheless, her nose insisted that something was wrong, and she couldn’t get past this “irrational” reaction.

I stayed in touch with Kris because he was my Woodstock classmate, and saw him a few times after we graduated in 1981. I even hired him for an internship with the (tiny) company I was working for in 1987. But over the years he got weird and weirder, and I was increasingly uncomfortable around him. He died in California in 1999, having lost control of his vehicle on a highway at 2 am and crashed into a bridge support. An autopsy showed that he had had a long-standing brain condition that probably caused a seizure that night. I never got all the details, but another classmate who had stayed close to Kris (and who informed me about his death) was told by the doctors that a symptom of this condition would have been shaky hands – which friends had noted back in high school: we used to tease him about drinking too much coffee. This friend also told me that Kris’ co-workers had once complained to him about Kris’ smell and asked him to tell Kris to shower more often!

So it wasn’t just me, and it wasn’t just “he’s a weirdo” – there was something physically wrong with Kris which eventually killed him, and many people’s noses told us to stay the hell away, even when we liked him as a person and mating wasn’t an issue.

The conclusion I draw from all this is that perhaps we find certain people repellent (odoriferously or visually) because they are unfit for us to mate with, and our brains subconsciously know it and try to surface this knowledge: “No! Stay away!” This reaction is “irrational”: we don’t really expect to reproduce (or even come close) with everybody we meet. But these instincts are very old and ingrained, for good reason. Human beings (like other animals) have been selected by evolution to find attractive those potential mates who are reproductively fit; the traits that make people beautiful to us are (sometimes misleading!) signs of reproductive health.

I suspect that the converse might also be true: that we find certain traits (such as obesity) repellent because we have evolved to perceive those traits as symptoms of underlying problems (genetic or disease) that make a person less fit to reproduce.

This doesn’t mean that I believe obese people are genetically “wrong” or diseased, nor that I condone treating people badly based on their weight or anything else. But perhaps it explains why sometimes, in spite of our best ideals and intentions, we react negatively to some people, and can’t even explain why we do.


3 thoughts on “The Nose Knows: Gut-Level Attraction and Repulsion

  1. ann-Lee

    thank you for that…great food for thought because i’ve always assumed and thought my instant dislike to some people instead of attraction even when the outside “packaging” has been attractive had to do more with the “energy” the person emitted instead of subconsciously reacting to their scent.
    the blogger’s comment seemed more an issue of his own body image/fear issues. i know when i react that way mentally to seeing someone obese it’s my own fear of the possibility of arriving to some point where i don’t care about my physical appearance or health and i just “let myself go” so to speak, since not many obese people are obese due to thyroid issues; as if a symptom of a prolonged depression.

  2. Val

    The original blogger’s tentative explanation for his fat-phobia is:

    “Perhaps it has something to do with the type of people I saw often when I was growing up in Kentucky. More often than not they were living in squalor, living off the state, and not doing much to change their station in life.”

    From his Kentucky youth he internalized “obesity” as a proxy for poverty and poor people, who are “choosing” their poverty by not pulling hard enough on their bootstraps. If the blogger had instead grown up, say, 150 years ago in a feudal society, his revulsion might be for the serfs’ slenderness caused by hoeing and food shortage, rather than the chub of the upper classes. What is physically attractive is often what is (perceived as) most costly to attain within a specific social context.

    Because of the cultural weight (pun me!) of fat and beauty, I’m not sure why you used an excerpt from this blog entry to kick off a sociobiology anecdote about smell. NeuroSci is not my field, but sense of smell seems to bypass our rational brains more than the other senses. Dogs can tell which people have lung cancer by smelling breath. A human instinct for other people’s stink is an interesting idea, but I’m wary of sociobiological extrapolation…

    Smell anecdote: In my experience, the guy I remember having the sexiest smell was unattractive in every other way. Our baby might have had a rip-roarin’ immune system, but I don’t think that’s a fair trade for the trials of single motherhood!

  3. dheeraj

    what u have written in your blog is something i never thought of and thank you for that. i mostly meet people who even though are good people by nature, i still sometimes don’t like to be with them. don’t you think that the manner in which we don’t like the smell of some people around us, someone won’t like us around them. what do u think should be done then?

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