Scent of a Lover

Issue Date: 
February 12, 2007

Ever sought comfort from the smell of your loved one’s clothing? You’re not alone

With Valentine’s Day approaching, a Pitt psychologist reminds us that romantic thoughts can abound even when a couple is apart, if one partner smells or sleeps with the clothing of the other.

We are all familiar with the image of a woman picking up her husband’s shirt and putting it to her face to detect his scent. Pitt researcher Sybil Streeter has found that this behavior occurs all over the world.

Collaborating with Donald McBurney, Pitt psychology professor emeritus, and Harald Euler, professor of psychology at the University of Kassel, Germany, Streeter surveyed people who were or had been in committed relationships. The researchers found that 66 percent of the German women and 72 percent of Pittsburgh women surveyed had, in the absence of their partners, slept with their clothing. Men reported lower incidences of the phenomenon: 29 percent in Germany and 26 percent in Pittsburgh.

“It does indeed appear that women engage in these behaviors more than men do,” said Streeter. “Some colleagues suggested that men may be less willing to admit it, but we’ve gone to great lengths to rule out that possibility.”
Streeter also says women appear to indulge themselves in these behaviors in a much broader range of relationships.

For instance, more women report smelling the clothing of their parents or their children. And preliminary data suggests that the scent of a romantic partner may reduce one’s negative feelings.

In addition, the researchers also reviewed the responses of people based on their romantic attachment style—preoccupied, dismissive, secure, or fearful—standardized styles established by researchers Phil Hazen and Cindy Shaver in a 1987 paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. For example, when categories of Pittsburgh men and women are combined, those with a secure attachment style—feeling comfortable depending on other people and being depended upon—are more likely to intentionally smell their partner’s clothing. Those with dismissive attachment—independent and comfortable without close emotional relationships—are less likely to do so.