Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Cologne and Self-Fulfilling Prophesies

I go to the gym at my town’s community center, and I can always tell when a high school boy has used the locker room recently—it smells strongly of Axe or Lynx body sprays. In a triumph of marketing, Unilever has convinced a whole generation of young men who think that if they douse themselves with the right spray, beautiful women will throw themselves at them. Don’t believe this is true? Well, here’s documentary evidence provided in an Axe commercial.

As a middle-aged person, I just roll my eyes at anything I don’t understand about young people. (“Kids these days”, said in a cranky voice). Some scientists, however, have taken the time to figure out if in fact these man-spays actually work, and what they have found wonderfully illustrates the sociological concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This study gave a group of young men cans of aerosol spray to use. Half the respondents had the real stuff—that smells so good—and the other half had a spray that didn’t really have anything in it. The researchers then gave the young men a series of psychological tests which were filmed. These films were then shown to young women, and the women were asked to rate the attractiveness of the male respondents. Lo and behold, the men who had sprayed themselves with the real body spray were deemed more attractive.

How did this work? The women viewers could not smell the men, yet they were more attracted to the men who smelled differently. The researchers concluded that the body spray had no direct effect on the women viewers, rather the sprays altered moods of the men who wore them. Smelling a certain way apparently made the men feel more confident, and so they acted differently, more confidently, than those who did not get the good-smelling sprays. The women viewers noticed this more confident manner and found it attractive.

The researchers then showed photographs of the male respondents to group of women, and the women did not find the good-smelling guys to be more physically attractive. It was the good-smelling guys’ behavior, not their physical appearance or scent that attracted women. The right smell made the guys act more confidently, so, somewhat counter-intuitively, the secret may not be whether a woman thinks a man smells good, but rather whether a man thinks he smells good.

This effect of body-spray—making a man more attractive because he thinks he is more attractive—represents a self-fulfilling prophesy. This concept has a long history and many uses, but here it refers to the effect of a changed self-identity. A change in the situation (i.e., body spray) changes a man’s attitudes about himself (more confidence) which in turn changes how others react to him (attraction).

Self-fulfilling prophesies show up in a remarkably wide range of social behaviors. If a basketball player thinks she’s going to miss a free throw, she probably will. If a child comes to believe that they are a bad kid, they’ll act that out. If a student thinks they are smart and hard working, they will do better in school.

In fact, I wonder if the logic of the study described above applies to all fashions. Wearing the right style at the right style at the right time might actually make us more attractive due to feeling better about ourselves. (Of course, some styles are inherently attractive, regardless of social definition. They always look great—for example, the baby blue tuxedo I wore to high school prom).

In this essay, I’ve focused on the effects of our self-image on our behavior, but there’s an equally rich story to be told about how society affects our self-image. Gender and racial stereotypes affect the self-images of groups of people. Parents, teachers, and friends constantly affect how we see ourselves. Advertising and all manner of media alter our self-perceptions. In the end, this concept, of a self-fulfilling prophesy, helps us to understand both who we are and what we do and how both are influenced by the society that we live in.

As you go through today, think about how you’re social interactions change how you see yourself, and how this in turn changes how you act and how others respond to you. Also, don’t forget to douse yourself with something that you think smells good.

(Originally posted on


JRomamma said...

Brad - I guess I am not looking forward to teen boys!

Mat said...

This reminds me of the Alpha dog concept used on the cable tv show, "The Dog Whisperer." It seems that self-confidence is key in the animal and human world.

Brad Wright said...

Jenny--you'd probably know more about the behavior of teen boys than I. :-)

Alpha Dog--that might be a good name for a new cologne!