The 12 Most Recognizable Scents (of 1982)


In the early 1980s, psychologist William Cain asked a bunch of people to sniff lighter fluid—for science. Working with students at Yale University, Cain and his cohorts took 80 common scents and asked participants if they could identify them.   

The resulting paper, “Odor Identification by Males and Females,” was published in the Chemical Senses journal in 1982. Thirty-three years later, it’s both a snapshot of what our noses were once commonly exposed to and an example of how certain smells never go out of style. Go on and take a whiff.      

1. Coffee


Few of Cain’s subjects had any problem naming the sweet aroma of ground coffee, and it’s unlikely things would be any different in today’s Starbucks-dotted world. “Even people who don’t drink coffee often love the smell of it,” says Cain, who now a senior scientist at the Chemosensory Perception Lab in San Diego. “There’s a pleasantness to it that puts it categorically aside. There are other things on the list at least as familiar in terms of frequency, but this is somehow different. I think even kids like the smell.”

2. Peanut Butter


Yes, Cain had students sticking their noses in jars in a pre-peanut hysteria climate. No one died. But it is surprising a comparatively low-key smell was so easily pinpointed in the study, especially when different brands of peanut butter can have their own distinctive scent. One explanation might be that peanuts produce over 200 airborne molecules, a kind of olfactory symphony that’s easy to recognize.

3. Vicks VapoRub

Procter & Gamble

A mentholated cream, Vicks is actually designed to be pungent—a good way to stay memorable. It’s also able to assert itself into your sense memory with a brand name that can help word retrieval. “It has stability based on the name of the product,” Cain says. In his study, subjects who could use a specific name to recall products could repeat it 80 to 90 percent of the time. If they gave a more generalized term, their chances plummeted to 50 percent.

4. Chocolate


For this one, subjects were given a little leeway. “I can give you Hershey’s chocolate, and with good justification can say 'this is what chocolate is,'” Cain says. “But I can also give you other kinds of chocolates. It’s the kind of category in which you’re permitted a certain amount of variation, using the same name for variants of a product.”

5. Wintergreen Oil


A common scent (and flavor) in oral hygiene products, wintergreen is practically rammed down throats in the form of toothpaste, mouthwash, and candies like Life Savers—as well as cigarettes and chewing tobacco. Next to coffee, it might be the most common high-exposure item on the list.

6. Johnson’s Baby Powder

Austin Kirk, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

One outcome of the study that surprised Cain was the dominance of fabricated, manmade smells as opposed to organic scents. “Items that are not natural are incredibly stable in terms of perception,” he says. “One of them is baby powder that comes from Johnson’s. Even off brands are made to smell like it.”

7. Cigarette Butts


While people were certainly aware of the health risks of cigarettes in the early 1980s, it was still a relatively common habit indoors and out. “[The study today] would certainly change,” he says. “Smoking was ubiquitous then.”

8. Mothballs

As an insect deterrent, mothballs have fallen out of favor in recent years due to health risks associated with inhalation. Children are especially susceptible to DNA and red blood cell breakdowns when exposed to naphthalene, one of the active chemicals. (Don’t inhale mothballs, kids. And don’t eat ‘em, either.)

9. Dry Cat Food


That oddly processed, industrial odor of cat food is a good example, Cain says, of what he calls “decontextualizing” smells. “When you give someone a jar, they probably don’t expect it to be full of cat food,” he says. “It’s unpleasant.” Cain likens it to smelling ketchup on a hamburger, which is less odorous and potentially more enticing than smelling the condiment by itself.

10. Beer


Most all beer has a distinctive yeast smell, which researchers speculate may be due to its need to attract fruit flies so the fungi can hitchhike to other rotting pastures. In the case of Cain’s study, the reason for recognition may be far simpler: his subjects were college students.

11. Ivory Bar Soap

Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Like baby powder, Ivory’s distinctive smell provided subjects with stability. “These products are made with such high precision that they’re virtually identical every time,” Cain says. “The errors in odor identification come from fluctuations in stimulus.” One apple is not like another, or may be less ripe—but millions of bars of soap are engineered to mimic one another.

12. Juicy Fruit Gum

Will Culpepper, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Strangely, the women in Cain’s study were far more accurate in detecting Juicy Fruit than the men, though they weren’t any more likely to chew gum. But a large portion of Cain’s study was devoted to the fact that women are generally far superior to men in identifying smells, including supposed male-leaning scents like motor oil. They outperformed the men in 66 of 80 samples, though it may have more to do with being better at verbal recall than actual scent memory.

The one time men showed clear nasal dominance? Identifying Brut Aftershave. “Men were better at that,” Cain says. “Maybe it had something to do with [then-spokesman] Joe Namath.”

What scents do you think would dominate a list today? Let us know in the comments below.

Drinking Up to Eight Cups of Coffee a Day Could Help You Live Longer

Good news for coffee fiends: That extra cup of joe in the afternoon could help you live longer, according to a new UK-based study spotted by Newsweek. Researchers determined that people who drink between one and eight cups of coffee per day may have a lower chance of death, regardless of whether their bodies are able to metabolize caffeine well.

To reach these conclusions, the team of researchers analyzed data from the UK Biobank pertaining to the lifestyle choices, demographics, and genetic information of 500,000 people, 87 percent of whom were coffee drinkers. More than 14,000 participants died during the course of the study from 2006 to 2010, and an inverse relationship between coffee drinking and the risk of death was recorded.

These findings were published in the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, but scientists say more research is needed to determine the link between coffee and other health outcomes. A similar study last year by the European Society of Cardiology suggested that people who drink up to four cups of coffee a day are 64 percent less likely to die early than those who hardly drank coffee. Every two additional cups of coffee improved one’s odds of an extended life span by 22 percent, researchers determined.

However reassuring these results may be to latte lovers, public health specialist Robin Poole of the University of Southampton told Newsweek that this doesn’t necessarily mean non-coffee drinkers should suddenly start caffeinating. (Poole was not involved in the study.)

"We know that some people metabolize caffeine quite slowly and are less tolerant of the apparent physical affects of caffeine, which of course comes from many sources other than coffee,” Poole said. “Such people would be better to avoid too much coffee, or move toward decaffeinated choices, [which] this study has shown still have beneficial associations.”

[h/t Newsweek]

This Tiny Espresso Machine Fits in Your Pocket and Keeps You Caffeinated Wherever You Go

If you've been putting off buying an espresso machine until you have the counter space, check out the Nanopresso from Wacaco. The gadget is smaller than most travel mugs, and it lets you brew hot, fresh coffee in even remote, electricity-free locations.

According to Bustle, Nanopresso operates through a hand-powered system. Just load water and your favorite blend of finely ground espresso in the right compartments, screw it back together, and pump the button on the side. Soon you'll have a shot of espresso you can squeeze directly into the detachable cup.

Hand holding a tiny espresso machine by a lake.

Nanopresso is an upgraded version of Wacaco's Minipresso. Weighing just 12 ounces, it's lighter than older models and requires 15 percent less force to pump it. This new device is perfect for the outdoors, whether you're planning a camping trip in the woods or a long day at the beach. But you don't need to be going off the grid to use one: You can keep it at home as an alternative to bulky, electric coffee machines, or bring one to your office so you can brew coffee at your desk.

Wacoco's Nanopresso is currently available on Amazon for $64.90. If you're planning to bring it outdoors this summer, check out these other smart camping essentials.

[h/t Bustle]


More from mental floss studios