Chapter 2. There’s something in the air
Although often underrated in importance, the human sense of smell has both evolutionary and contemporary significance: our ability to perceive odors provides information that allows us to evaluate and guide our responses to our environments. For example, the rich aromas wafting from a bakery encourage us to linger and savor them, whereas the smell of rotting garbage impels us to move away. No account of the role of smell in our lives would be complete, however, without an acknowledgment that people vary in their perception of and response to ambient odors in their environment. Some of this variability can be attributed to inter-individual variation in sensitivity. However, an important source of differences in response to ambient, environmental odors may also stem from cognitive factors, such as an individual’s beliefs and expectations about the consequences of exposure to an odor. This essay will provide an overview of the multiple factors-including expectations, suggestion and physiological reactions- that influence individual and community responses to environmental odors. Recognizing the interaction between the sensory and the psychological responses to odors is of significant value when trying to remediate community reactions to odors from these sources. The perception of health risks from short- or long-term exposures to environmental odors is of escalating concern to the general public and research indicates that such concerns can amplify the vigilance and attention paid to even low-level, neutral, background odors. Our research also suggests that interventions that reduce ambient pollutants, but which do not eliminate all odors may not remediate the concerns and anxieties of occupants. The historical basis for such beliefs and their consequences will provide a framework for discussing the contemporary responses to environmental odors.