Can we really smell fear? Yes… if you're a woman


Can we really smell fear? Yes… if you’re a woman: Scientists found their behaviour changed after sniffing an anxious person’s sweat

  • Scientists took samples of sweat from anxious people during public speaking
  • Asked 214 men and women to sniff the samples via a mask while playing games 
  • Women played in less trusting and more risk-averse way while smelling sweat


It really is possible to smell fear, a study suggests, but only if you’re a woman.

Women’s behaviour changed after sniffing an anxious person’s sweat, researchers found.

The scientists took samples of sweat from anxious people during a public speaking task and from relaxed people playing sports.

They asked 214 men and women in total to sniff the samples via a mask while playing five games set by psychologists.

Researchers from Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf took samples of sweat from anxious people during a public speaking task and from relaxed people playing sports. (Stock image)

Researchers from Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf took samples of sweat from anxious people during a public speaking task and from relaxed people playing sports. (Stock image)

Women were found to play in a less trusting and more risk-averse way while smelling the anxiety sweat.

For example, in a financial investment game, they transferred less money to other players. 

The same game played with computers produced similar results. These effects were not found among the men. 

The findings may be explained by women’s social evolution, said the researchers from Heinrich Heine University in Dusseldorf.

Women were found to play in a less trusting and more risk-averse way while smelling the anxiety sweat. (Stock image)

Women were found to play in a less trusting and more risk-averse way while smelling the anxiety sweat. (Stock image)

Anxiety signals during threatening situations prompted our female ancestors to use their social networks. 

For example, if a predator was lurking, they would tend to their children to ensure their survival and band with others for joint protection and comfort.

This ‘tending and befriending behaviour’ might make them more sensitive to ‘subtle signals of individual anxiety’ than men, said the researchers, whose study was published in the journal Biological Psychology.

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