Vomit, urine and body odour: The messy world of personal characteristics, smell performance, smell preferences and disgust

V. Henshaw

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Disgust, we know, is a mechanism by which young babies can automatically contort their facial muscles to limit the amount of air they inhale upon detection of unpleasant, usually strong or potentially toxic odours. However, as we grow, that which we find disgusting becomes much more influenced by a wide range of factors relating to the environments we inhabit, our individual characteristics and experiences, and our social and cultural backgrounds.Research into smell provides one means by which we can gain valuable insights into the varied roles that disgust plays in people’s expressions of themselves, perceptions of others and of the world around them. In recent research examining smell experiences of the city, female participants were much more likely to rate their sense of smell highly than men, with this rating difference being much greater than the physiological differences documented between genders in previous studies. However, upon further examination, this difference was found to be informed by women’s increased sensitivity to odours, frequently expressed as disgust.Furthermore, in a separate recent study on smell preferences, odours of urine, faeces, vomit and public toilets were some of the most frequently mentioned negatively perceived odours with body odour featuring most frequently as the least liked smell (mentioned by 55% of participants). However, body odour was also mentioned by some participants as a most liked odours, with this being influenced by contextual information such as from whose body the odour was emitted, and whether odours were considered to be in or out of place. Smell preferences were also frequently linked with self preservation, one of the key functions of smell perception, and highly associated with odour familiarity, previous experiences of odours, illness and disgust. This begs further questioning such as what is the purpose of disgust, does this change throughout our lifetimes, and what roles does it play at a psychological, physiological and social level?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationhost publication
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2011
EventSensory Worlds Conference - The University of Edinburgh
Duration: 7 Dec 20119 Dec 2011


ConferenceSensory Worlds Conference
CityThe University of Edinburgh


  • disgust, smell, preference, cities


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