Emotional Processing of Odors: Evidence for a Nonlinear Relation between Pleasantness and Familiarity Evaluations

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Abstract

Pleasantness, familiarity, and intensity are 3 interdependent dimensions commonly used to describe the perceived qualities of an odor. In particular, many empirical studies have demonstrated a positive correlation between familiarity and pleasantness. However, on the basis of both theoretical and methodological perspectives, we questioned the validity of such a relation for malodors. We report 2 studies based on subjective judgments of a large sample of odorants (Experiment 1) associated with autonomic recordings (Experiment 2). Multivariate exploratory analysis performed on the data splits the whole odorant set into 2 subsets composed, respectively, of unpleasant and pleasant odorants. Subsequent correlation analyses have shown that the relation between pleasantness and familiarity is specific for the pleasant odors in the 2 experiments. Moreover, autonomic activity was more important in response to malodors than to pleasant odors and was significantly correlated with unpleasantness ratings in the subset of unpleasant odors. These 2 studies argue in favor of a functional dissociation in the relations between both subjective and autonomic responses to odors as a function of pleasantness and indicate that researchers in the olfactory domain should consider the relations between pleasantness and familiarity as more complex than linear.

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