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
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
“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.