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The Smell of Fear

Basic mentalizing can prevent misinterpretation of affects and behavior.

If you start feeling uncomfortable, maybe a little anxious in the presence of others, even though you might not (be able to) see their behavior or hear their voice, it could be that you picked up on someone else’s odor of fear. Here is what happened to me years ago when I was attending a training session on presentation techniques.

The training started early morning in a small conference room at a hotel nearby the company I worked for. When the trainer came into the room, she initially sat down next to me while waiting for her introduction. While she sat there, a whiff of her perspiration odor made its way to my highly sensitive nose. It was the kind of smell that people exude when they feel anxious. I wondered if the trainer felt nervous about conducting the training, but I couldn’t detect any other sign of unease in her. On the contrary, the trainer seemed very confident in her mannerisms and appearance.

During the training, participants were asked to perform short public speaking exercises in front of the group. I volunteered to go first. Shortly after I started, the trainer asked me to stop, turned to the group and asked, “Do you think she feels confident?” The other participants appeared to be a little puzzled by her question. The trainer continued, “I don’t think so, because when I listen to her voice, I detect a slight change in her voice pitch.” I turned to the trainer, feeling slightly bothered by the way she was handling the situation, and told her that I might be feeling more energized than normal, but that I was not feeling anxious.

To my surprise, the trainer augured in on her assessment and pointed out that I was now placing one of my hands on the table next to me, which in her opinion, was another sign of fear, as it signified that I was looking for something to hold on to. I repeated that it had nothing to do with me feeling anxious. As the training continued, it occurred to me that the other participants were also made aware by the trainer of their “anxious” nonverbal behavior.

After finishing the training, I approached the trainer and shared my observations with her. I told her that I got the impression that she often interpreted the behavior of the speakers as an indication of anxiety when it didn't necessarily seem to be the case. Reflexively, the trainer adamantly replied that many insecure people try their best to appear confident, being reluctant to admit that they are afraid. At that moment it dawned on me that this was exactly what the trainer was doing herself. Moreover, she seemed to project her own anxiousness onto the participants. As you might guess, the evaluations that the trainer received from the participants were lukewarm. Some felt misunderstood, while others felt more nervous about public speaking after the training than they did before.

What do you think happened here? Were the participants really nervous and trying to cover up their anxious feelings ... or, was the trainer the one who felt uncomfortable about giving the training? Both the trainer and the participants were most likely in a higher state of arousal to begin with, as is generally the case with public speaking. When the trainer sat next to me, I picked up a hint of her perspiration odor. This can increase the level of nervousness even more.

Studies regarding affective contagion - the embodiment of emotions, moods, or feelings of others - increasingly demonstrate that an affect such as fear is shared not only though mimicry - copying audiovisual signals - but can also be picked up via smell.

An airline passenger who suffers from a fear of flying, for instance, may give off a scent of fear that causes other passengers seated in the same area to feel anxious or nervous, even if they normally feel at ease when flying. De Groot, Semin, and Smeets (1), found in their study that

olfactory fear signals were as potent as audiovisual fear signals in inducing fear, the combined findings argue against the commonly accepted view that human communication of emotions runs exclusively via linguistic or visual channels.

Sweating due to fear involves a different physiological response than perspiring due to physical exertion. In other words, the odor of fear smells quite different than normal perspiration odor.

Apocrine sweat glands are involved in affective sweating in humans - sweat induced by anxiety, stress, fear, sexual stimulation, and pain (2) - producing an odorless, oily, opaque secretion that gains its characteristic body odor upon bacterial decomposition.

Skunks use the scent as a powerful defense mechanism. Humans (thankfully) are not able to do this, although we can still pick up on the distinctive odor when we are in relatively close proximity to an anxious individual. Interestingly, the scent of fear differs depending on the ethnicity of the person.

East Asians, for example, have a significantly less detectible body odor compared to people of European and African descent. (3)

Our tendency to pick up on someone else’s affect and behavior is automatic, uninhibited and nonconscious in nature. In other words, we tend to mimic or share the emotions and behaviors of others without any conscious reflection. Studies done by Hatfield, Cacioppo, and Rapson show that

the direction and intensity of affective contagion doesn’t usually go both ways - individuals are more readily “infected” by older or higher-status people. In the end, people in a group wind up feeling more similar to each other. (4)

In addition, studies have indicated that negative emotions are more “contagious” than positive ones. This is partly due to our biological make-up, which makes us more attuned to negative emotions.

When we relate these research findings to the training situation illustrated at the beginning of this article, we can assume that the trainer was regarded as someone of higher status within the training group. For this reason, the trainer’s affective mental state had the greatest influential power to “infect” the other people in the room – the participants. Thus, perhaps the participants, or at least some of them, were actually just reflecting the trainer’s anxiety. Since the trainer apparently wasn’t aware of this possibility, it is easy to see how she could have misinterpreted the mental states of the participants.

Another reason that the trainer might have misinterpreted the behavior of the participants could be the potential for affective states to influence attentional focus.

Individuals who feel anxious tend to demonstrate an attentional bias toward fearful expressions and other stimuli that can be interpreted as threatening, such as an angry facial expression, as proposed by Fox.

In addition, the affect of people tends to bleed over into their perception of neutral faces as they interpret neutral signals from others in line with their own emotions. (5)

While most of these studies have been conducted with socially anxious people, the findings of Fox are not limited to people with an anxious predisposition. For instance, Yoon and Zinbarg found in their study that

interpreting neutral faces in a negative manner is the default mode for high-socially anxious individuals, whereas low-socially anxious individuals interpret neutral faces negatively only when anticipating threat.(6)

Understanding this, we can infer that although the participants generally demonstrated behaviors that were affectively neutral, the trainer, might have interpreted their behaviors as signs of anxiety. This doesn’t mean that the trainer suffered from anxiety in general, but in this context she might have been struggling with feelings of anxiety. As a consequence, her affective mental state could have biased her perception of the mental states and behavior of the participants.

What can we do to prevent the misinterpretation of affect and behavior? Trying to suppress or avoid feelings of anxiety probably only increases their effect. Feeling anxious to a certain degree can actually be a good thing. A study done by Chen, for instance, demonstrated

that human fear chemosignals enhance cognitive performances in the recipient.”(7)

As proposed in our book, Mastering Mentalization, in order to truly prevent confusion and misunderstanding due to anxious feelings, we need to become increasingly conscious of our own affective mental states. This is important for two reasons: first, because our mental states and behavior influence the mental states and the behavior of other people; and second, because our mental states bias our perceptions of what is goingon in the minds of others. This is where basic mentalizing competencies come into play.

Basic mentalizing pertains to our most elementary level of mentalization.

One component of basic mentalizing that has relevance to this article, is the embodied sharing and detection of social signals and cues through our tendencies for mimicry, affective contagion and behavioral contagion.

Basic mentalizing increases your awareness of these tendencies and teaches you to understand how to deal with them.

Basic mentalizing competencies could have prevented the sort of misinterpretation of behavior that occurred between the trainer and the participants, and afforded the trainer the opportunity to focus on the actual challenges that the participants faced. This would have enabled her to tailor her advice and exercises to the specific needs of the participants.

The participants, in turn, would have felt better understood and would have had the chance to truly master new public speaking skills. In the end, their feedback regarding the training would have been more positive, boosting the confidence of the trainer, which would have helped her to feel less anxious for the next training.

A virtuous circle would have emerged as opposed to the vicious circle illustrated in this case.

Can you recall a similar situation in which you might have taken on the affective state or behavior of another person? What were the consequences? What might have gone differently if you knew back then what you know now?



  1. De Groot, J. H. B., Semin, G. R., & Smeets, M. A. M. (2014). I can see, hear, and smell your fear: Comparing olfactory and audiovisual media in fear communication. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 143(2), 825–834. doi:10.1037/a0033731

  2. Wilke, K., Martin, A., Terstegen, L., Biel, S. S. (June 2007). A short history of sweat gland biology. International Journal of Cosmetic Science. 29(3): 169–179. doi:10.1111/j.1467-2494.2007.00387.x.

  3. Preti, G., & Leyden, J. J. (2010). Genetic Influences on Human Body Odor: From Genes to the Axillae. Journal of Investigative Dermatology, 130(2), 344–346.doi:10.1038/jid.2009.396​.

  4. Hatfield, E., Cacioppo, J. T., & Rapson, R. L., (1994). Emotional Contagion. Cambridge (UK). Cambridge University Press.​

  5. Fox, E., (2002). Processing emotional facial expressions: The role of anxiety and awareness. Cognitive Affective Behavioral Neuroscience. 2(1): 52–63.

  6. Yoon, K. L., & Zinbarg, R. E., (2008). Interpreting Neutral Faces as Threatening Is a Default Mode for Socially Anxious Individuals. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. 117(3): 680 – 685. doi: 10.1037/0021-843X.117.3.680​

  7. Chen, D. (2006). Chemosignals of Fear Enhance Cognitive Performance in Humans. Chemical Senses, 31(5), 415–423. doi:10.1093/chemse/bjj046

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