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What Caught My Eye: People Pick Friends Who Smell Like Them

A series of weekly outside-the-box news stories and their unexpected lessons for recruiting

People May Pick Friends Who Smell Like Them - Scientific American

A recent report in the publication Science Advances described research in Israel that found there’s more to the idea of certain people having chemistry with one another than previously thought. We humans, it turns out, don’t pick our friends based just on their personality or appearance or even our ability to get along with them. Like many other mammals, we also factor in their smell.

That’s right. It turns out, people “click” with others who smell like them, and our noses are sensitive enough to tell the difference. The proof was found in stinky shirts. Participants in the research project were asked to give up “scented soaps, garlic and anything else that might alter their body odor” and then to wear a cotton t-shirt to bed “to capture the scent.”

Gotta’ love science!

The scented shirts were then tested with both a chemical sensing device called an electronic nose and “human smellers” to assess the impact of human odor on person-to-person connections. The machine examined the chemistry of scent similarity, while the humans evaluated their perception of how much they were alike in intensity, pleasantness and other factors.

What did they uncover?

According to news reports, “The researchers found that twosomes who clicked with each other when they met had more similar scents, compared with randomly selected pairs of other people in the study.” In addition, the researchers also discovered that scent similarity could accurately predict which pairs of strangers would click 71 percent of the time. It seems people like to hang out with others who smell just like them.

What’s that mean for talent acquisition?

For most of us, the impact of smell on personal relationships is best described as an unconscious bias. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware of its influence.

The same could be said, of course, about the role of unconscious biases in employee referral programs and some AI-based sourcing and selection tools. That’s where the similarity ends, however. According to the research report, scent has a beneficial impact on human relationships – it helps make positive connections among people – whereas bias is harmful to both people and employers – it hurts the individuals against which it is directed and it damages both an organization’s reputation and its recruiting performance.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Referral programs and AI solutions are extremely useful and effective in the acquisition of talent. But only if they are done right, and unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

Experience has shown that poorly designed and/or managed referral programs and carelessly trained and/or monitored AI-based recruiting tools can keep an employer from tapping the full range of talent available in the workforce for its openings and from selecting the candidates who will likely make the greatest contribution on-the-job.

So, what should recruiting teams do?

Deploy the bias equivalent of scent smellers in the recruiting process. Or better yet, make that role a part of every person’s job on the team. The odds of detection go up if everyone is on the lookout for bias in the way referral and other HR programs are created and executed and AI-based solutions are evaluated and implemented. Think of it as the olfactory strategy for optimum recruiting performance.

Food for Thought,

Peter Weddle is the author or editor of over two dozen books and a former columnist for The Wall Street Journal. He is also the founder and CEO of TAtech: The Association for Talent Acquisition Solutions. You can download his latest book – The Neonaissance – FOR FREE at And, if you don't have time to read the entire book, just download a short excerpt of his inspirational message.