As a life-long, occasionally conscripted political volunteer, I've encountered my share of smells along the political way. Fried chicken in the summer at church picnics and BBQ on Fourth of July in Newnan, Georgia, (with the argument about which BBQ was better -- Melear's or Sprayberry's). Then there was the smell of glue from the backs of the envelopes we were sending. (Yes, if there are enough freshly licked envelopes you can smell the sticky, sweet smell of the glue).
Other smells: just-fired firecrackers in a rural town after Fourth of July, sweat after walking the fifth Fourth of July parade in the sweltering sun in Georgia.Presidential campaign smells included pork on the stick (a delicacy, according to my husband, Jimmy), fried butter, fried Oreos, fried anything as you walk down the midway of the Iowa State Fair. The smell of the pasture that you step onto after parking the car outside a campaign rally in South Carolina. The smell of freshly fallen snow in Alaska when stepping out of the airport. And the smell of crawfish and beer in a bar in Houma, Louisiana. None of these is easy to forget. These are the smells I recalled when reflecting on the words "politics and smell" together.
Wow, was I wrong.
An article published this week in the American Journal of Political Science titled, "Assortative Mating on Ideology Could Operate Through Olfactory," by Rose McDermott, Dustin Tingley and Peter Hatemi, provides a very different perspective.
Smells provide not only context for political venues, but indications, enticements to engage (or is that to be engaged?) to those who share the same political leanings.
"Similarity between spouses is common ... but in humans, long-term mates correlate more highly on social and political attitudes than almost any other trait, with the exception of religion. ... Unlike religion, assortative mating on attitudes does not appear to result from partners becoming more similar over time, social homogamy or direct selection."
What this means is that couples with similar political leanings end up together. You might wonder why your date, then your mate, have social and political views that are like yours. You weren't selecting for those; you were looking instead to see if they made your heart flutter when you saw them or made your feet tingle when you kissed. At least, those were a few of the items I selected for when my husband and I were dating.
"A growing body of evidence reveals that the mechanisms that account for differences in ideological attitudes are genetically and biologically influenced and conscript olfactory processes," the authors conclude. "In this research note, we integrate these lines of inquiry and reveal that people find the smell of ideologically similar others more attractive, thereby providing preliminary evidence suggesting that one of the mechanisms by which political assortative mating occurs is through subconscious sexual attraction to variant body odors."
So it's not simply that you associate and hang out with those who have similar beliefs; it's that people find the smell of those who share similar political views more pleasant than the smells of those who have different views. The experiment was conducted without the test subjects seeing the other person, so the preference was not based on physical attributes.
Genetic predispositions (i.e., specific genomic regions) were identified by a study conducted by Hatemi in 2001 "that accounts for variation in ideological orientation, one of which contained a large number of olfactory receptors." The authors noted research in 2013 that concluded that: "people may be subconsciously choosing an optimal mating partner who would increase the probability of having children with more social and genetic advantages."
The authors concluded, "individuals find the smell of those who are more ideologically similar to themselves more attractive than those endorsing opposing ideologies; recall that participants never saw the individuals whose smells they were evaluating, and the order of target subjects was randomized for each evaluator."
People prefer the smell of those with similar political views -- so indeed -- those who disagree with your political views might be turning their noses up at you, albeit unconsciously. As smelly as politics occasionally gets, it's even more fascinating that the science of smell and political ideology might help determine who we end up with.