The climate-controlled, color-coordinated and tropical plant-lined corridors of the prototypical American shopping mall can make visitors feel like subjects of a carefully planned psychological experiment.
Which is exactly what shoppers became recently when Robert Baron and his researchers entered Crossgates Mall in upstate New York.As consumers strolled past Cinnabon and Nine West, Mrs. Field's and Banana Republic, they encountered young folks requesting change for a dollar or clumsily dropping ballpoint pens. Little did the subjects suspect that their conduct was being evaluated.
The researchers were trying to see if the heady aroma of coffee or the soothing, grandmother's-house smell of baking cookies might lull people into acts of kindness they would otherwise forgo.
One of two experiments showed that while under the olfactory influence of roasting coffee or baking cookies, people were more than twice as likely to provide a stranger with change for a dollar than they were in unscented surroundings. The dropped-pen experiment produced similar results.
"Lo and behold, when there was a pleasant fragrance in the air people were more helpful," said Baron, a professor at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.
Each experiment tested the helpfulness of 116 shoppers, and both tried to match the scented and unscented test areas as much as possible for things like time of day, volume of pedestrian traffic, nearness to mall entrances and lighting.
The experiments also gender-matched testers and subjects, with only men approaching male shoppers and only women approaching females. That limitation was requested by mall director Charles Breidenbach, who worried that shoppers - especially women approached by men - might interpret a change request as a lame pickup effort.
"The effects of pleasant fragrances on social behavior stem, at least in part, from fragrance-induced increments in positive affect," Baron writes.
So, good smells make people happy. And when people feel happy, they're nice to one another.
The opposite is also true, notes Craig Anderson of the University of Missouri in Columbia. Unpleasant smells can make people frighteningly aggressive by putting them in bad moods.