Can Clean Smells Reduce Stinky Workplace Behaviors?

November 24, 2009 ( – A new academic study suggests people act nicer when they're in a clean smelling environment.

Researchers Katie Liljenquist, assistant professor of organizational leadership at Brigham Young University’s Marriott School of Management, Chen-Bo Zhong of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and Adam Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, contend that from an organizational standpoint, their study offers two pieces of relevant office application: having a clean environment can promote good behavior, and a perceived clean environment affects people’s perceptions of how competent and desirable a workplace is. 

According to Human Resource Executive, the researchers sprayed citrus-scented Windex in one room, but not another, before playing a “classic trust game,” Liljenquist said, noting that previous studies have found that many people find citrus and pine to be “clean” scents. The study participants were teamed with an “anonymous partner” in another room (who was really just one of the researchers), received money from their partners, and then had to decide how much of it to either keep or return to their partners, who had trusted them to divide it fairly.

The participants in the clean-scented rooms were less likely to exploit the trust of their partners, returning a significantly higher share of the money, an average of $5.33 from the $12 they were given, compared to just $2.81 from those in the other room.

“The underlying mechanism is that, when you’re in a clean environment, subtle cues are activated on an awareness level that subconsciously activates the moral clause,” Liljenquist said, according to the news report. “Any time you’re exposed to physical cleanliness, you have a clear association to what’s clean and what’s dirty, and you can activate that moral lens — and that seems to regulate people’s behavior in a positive direction.”

“The Smell of Virtue: Clean Scents Promote Reciprocity and Charity” published in the upcoming issue of Psychological Science also highlights a second experiment concerning how people’s sense of charity could be affected by scent. Participants surveyed in a citrusy atmosphere were significantly more interested in volunteering (4.21 on a 7-point scale) than the other group (3.29), while nearly one-quarter (22%) of those in the scented room said they would donate money, compared to only 6% of the other group.

Follow-up questions confirmed that participants didn’t notice the scent in the room and that their mood at the time of the experiment didn’t affect the outcome.

Human Resource Executive reports that Michael Warech, an organizational psychologist and president and founder of Warech Associates, says the research could have significant implications for teamwork, especially in functions or work teams, such as self-directed work teams, that require a high level of interdependence. “That’s a line of research that should be explored a little more because certainly [teamwork] is a dynamic in organizations these days,” he said.

However, Warech holds less hope for the ability of organizations to negate unethical activities by using a scent. “I just think that donating is something that is less compelling of a behavior than stealing,” he said. “If someone is going to embezzle, I don’t think they’re going to think twice if the place smells nice. Whereas it could enhance a positive aspect, it won’t deter a negative impact.”