Background: Almost every interpersonal interaction is mediated by the sex of the individuals involved. Visual, auditory, and olfactory cues provide individuals with the opportunity to discriminate the sex of others from a distance and so prepare sex-appropriate behaviours for any impending interaction. The usefulness of that important social skill is mediated by the reliability of the sensory information. Sometimes cues in one domain will be ambiguous, and the perceptual processes mediating sex perceptions will need to integrate information from across the senses for better reliability. With that in mind, the experiment reported here was designed to explore the effect of olfactory-visual interactions on sex perceptions.
Methods: Observers were presented visually with point-light walkers that were sexually ambiguous (not unequivocally female or male). They were asked to judge, using a two-alternative forced choice paradigm, the sex of each walker. Tested on two occasions, observers unknowingly made sex judgements in the presence or absence of pads soaked in male sweat.
Results: The presence of male sweat was associated with higher proportions of ‘male’ judgements of both ambiguous female and ambiguous male walkers (F1,19 = 24.11, p < 0.01).
Conclusion: These findings suggest that olfactory cues can modulate visual sex discriminations made on the basis of biological motion cues. Importantly, they seem to do so even when the olfactory cue is not consciously perceived, suggesting these effects are mediated by perceptual rather than cognitive processes.
These findings suggest that there exist cortical processes mediating sex perceptions that are capable of integrating visual and olfactory information. What is important is that this sensory integration takes place without conscious knowledge and that appropriate behaviour modifications may occur automatically.
Hacker, G, Brooks, A & van der Zwan, R 2013, 'Sex discriminations made on the basis of ambiguous visual cues can be affected by the presence of an olfactory cue', BMC Psychology, vol. 1, no. 10.