There's only a handful of comprehensive books on the psychology of smell; one of them is Smell: The Secret Seducer by Piet Vroon. It was originally published in Dutch in 1994, and the English translation is now almost ten years old. I included it in my list of five "must-have" books for beginners (December 2005), because it's properly researched, well-referenced, and easily accessible to a large public. It was a long time since I last browsed through it, so I dusted off my old copy of the Dutch original, hoping that I wouldn't be disappointed in retrospect. Here's what I found.
The Secret Seducer covers many different aspects of olfaction. It starts off with a short cultural history of smell, which shows striking parallels with Constance Classen's approach in Aroma (also published in '94). Vroon explains why we have long neglected the sense of smell (it was considered as one of the "lower" senses), and briefly sketches the historical relationship between science and olfaction. He goes on to explore the role of smell in everyday life, giving an overview of contemporary research on pheromones and the vomeronasal organ. In this section the author raises more questions than he's able to answer; so if you're fascinated by the biology of human odor, you may want to look into Michael Stoddard's The Scented Ape for further reading. Vroon's strong point is in his analysis of the psychology of smell: which is why I can highly recommend his chapter on the use of perfume.
Vroon was by no means a perfume expert; but as a reputable psychologist, his take on why we use perfume, and how it affects our behavior, is incredibly valuable. He refers to experiments conducted in various social settings (job interviews, man-woman relations at work, etc), and seeks his answers in evolutionary psychology and processes of natural selection. His conclusions may surprise the naive reader: perfumes produce no straightforward effects on men and women in terms of sexual attraction; they often trouble emotional and intellectual judgement in men (as they are less capable of processing several sensorial impressions at once); and finally, although a woman can boost her confidence by wearing perfume, this practice is best avoided in "unpredictable" social settings.
While that last piece of advice is very disappointing indeed, I do share many of the author's insights in perfumery. He acknowledges that women primarily use perfumes because they enjoy them (not because they expect them to work as sexual attractants), and questions mainstream advertising strategies in the perfume industry. The Secret Seducer is a clear, well-documented introduction to the psychology of smell: a great source of information, not just for beginners. I do believe, however, that the time has come for a more up-to-date book on this subject.
Smell: The Secret Seducer
Piet Vroon, Anton van Amerongen, Hans de Vries
transl: Paul Vincent
New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (1997)
Hardcover, 226 pages
Piet Vroon (1939-1998) was a psychologist, publicist, and lecturer at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. He wrote many books and articles on neuropsychology and related fields of interest.