A new study finds that the scent of coffee alone helped students perform better on the analytical portion of the Graduate Management Aptitude Test, or GMAT, a computer adaptive test required by many business schools. It also increased the participants’ expectations that they would do well on the test.
The findings are published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology.
“It’s not just that the coffee-like scent helped people perform better on analytical tasks, which was already interesting. But they also thought they would do better, and we demonstrated that this expectation was at least partly responsible for their improved performance,” said study leader Dr. Adriana Madzharov, a professor at Stevens School of Business.
In short, smelling the scent of coffee, which has no caffeine in it, has an effect similar to that of drinking coffee, suggesting a placebo effect of coffee scent.
For the study, the researchers administered a 10-question GMAT algebra test in a computer lab to about 100 undergraduate business students, divided into two groups. One group took the test in the presence of an ambient coffee-like scent, while a control group took the same test, but in an unscented room. The students in the coffee-smelling room scored significantly higher on the test.
The researchers wanted to investigate further. Could the first group’s boost in quick thinking be explained, in part, by an expectation that a coffee scent would increase alertness and subsequently improve performance? They designed a follow-up survey, conducted with more than 200 new participants, quizzing them on beliefs about various scents and their perceived effects on human performance.
Overall, the participants believed they would feel more alert and energetic in the presence of a coffee scent, versus a flower scent or no scent; and that exposure to coffee scent would increase their performance on mental tasks.
The findings suggest that expectations about performance can be explained by beliefs that the smell of coffee alone makes people more alert and energetic.
Madzharov, whose research focuses on sensory marketing and aesthetics, plans to investigate whether coffee-like scents can have a similar placebo effect on other types of performance, such as verbal reasoning. She also says that the finding — that the scent of coffee acts as a placebo for analytical reasoning performance — has many practical applications, including several for business.
“Olfaction is one of our most powerful senses,” Madzharov said. “Employers, architects, building developers, retail space managers and others, can use subtle scents to help shape employees’ or occupants’ experience with their environment. It’s an area of great interest and potential.”
Source: Stevens Institute of Technology