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A Stinky Concern: Your Stress Sweat Makes You Seem Incompetent

By Alaina G. Levine

While many were fawning over the Nobel Prizes in the last few weeks, I became excited over a seemingly innocent paper published by PLOS One that, in fact, stinks big time.

In the first comprehensive scientific study of stress sweat, Dr. Pamela Dalton, an experimental psychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center
in Philadelphia, PA, confirmed that the smell of stress sweat significantly alters how women are perceived by both males and females. In her studies, she determined that the chemicals in stress sweat impact social judgments of a person’s confidence, trustworthiness and competence.

a test subject takes a whiff of stress sweat through an olfactometer while watching stress-inducing videos.

a test subject takes a whiff of stress sweat through an olfactometer while watching stress-inducing videos.

In other words, the worse you stink, the worse others think you are at your job.

How refreshing to know!

Stress sweat is the foulest smelling of the three types of sweat our armpits harbor. Whereas sweat from exercise and temperature increases are produced by secretions from the eccrine gland and are mostly water, stress sweat is produced from the apocrine gland and is comprised of 80% water and 20% nutrients. Those nutrients mix with bacteria on your skim and that’s what causes the seriously gross odor for which stress sweat is known.

But there is much more to add to this lovely bouquet of a tale. Of course if someone smells your offending odor from stress sweat they might not want to be near you. If anything they’ll excuse themselves from the situation and retreat to more fragrant foundations. If it was only your b.o. this problem might not be as complicated to solve.

Alas, with stress sweat nothing is ever easy. Scientists know that it is not just the stench that delivers a negative message about the offending person – the person experiencing stress sweat produces a chemical (that is still being examined) that in it of itself delivers the bad PR about the person in stress. Just like detecting pheromones, we detect stress sweat and as a result, jump to negative conclusions about others.

Dalton’s goal was to determine how people react when they sense stress sweat on another person and how it clouds their judgment of the other party. In a fascinating experiment, she collected samples of stress sweat, placed them in a specially-designed olfactometer (yes that is a real thing), and had participants smell the sweat while viewing videos of people in stress-inducing situations (such as giving a speech or dealing with a crying kid).

The people in the experiment did not know that they were sniffing stress sweat. Since “the stress sweat develops ‘malodor’ when it sits on skin and interacts with bacteria, our collection method was developed to keep it from interacting with bacteria, i.e. we collected it on pads from cleaned underarms and froze them immediately until we put them in the olfactometer,” describes Dalton. “Thus, the stress sweat signal that communicates information appears to be independent from the bad odor that develops on peoples’ skin or clothes.”

She then quizzed the smellers about how they viewed the people in the videos.

Overwhelmingly, the test subjects gave the females in the videos low rankings when asked about their confidence, trustworthiness and competence. Surprisingly, male test subjects rated the women in the videos much more negatively in terms of these three dimensions. As Dalton notes, “I didn’t expect women to be as generous or empathetic” to the females seen in the stress-inducing scenarios. She has some conjectures about this particular element: she thinks that it may demonstrate the fact that women more often will reach out for networks when stressed, something she refers to as a “tend and befriend” attribute. This goes against conventional, traditional wisdom of the “fight or flight” mentality that more men tend to display.

Dalton’s research has interesting ramifications for the personal care industry (P&G Secret specifically commissioned this study, and Colgate  and other companies are financial sponsors of the Monell Center through their corporate sponsorship program). But more importantly, it helps us better understand the sometimes subtle, sometimes overt “social communication of body odor” which has potential applications in myriad industries, ranging from security, law enforcement and military, to fashion.

Bottom line? Remain calm. Because if you are stressed you could produce stress sweat which could make you appear incompetent. And that totally reeks.

Alaina G. Levine never stresses about science. She is a science and engineering writer, career consultant and professional speaker and comedian. Her new book on networking strategies for scientists and engineers will be published by Wiley in 2014. She can be reached through her website at www.alainalevine.com or through her twitter handle @AlainaGLevine.