There’s a saying that you can smell fear in a person, and it’s a saying with a degree of truth to it. When we are nervous we usually release a chemical, which can be detected by other humans, and probably other animals, on a subconscious level. It’s probably why the ’smell of fear’ has entered the public lexicon in the first place.
The impact of fear upon risk taking
What possible impact could this have on our performance at work though? That was the question posed by a recent study exploring the role this ’smell of fear’ has on both our own behaviour at work, and those of our colleagues.
Researchers recently took this fear drenched sweat and analysed how it impacts upon our propensity for risk taking. The researchers first asked participants to undertake a high wire obstacle course to get them nicely spooked up, although it must be said they can’t have been as scared as the poor guys asked to repair this radio tower (had to get this video into a blog somehow - watch it and come back!). You can only begin to imagine the amount of sweat those guys must have produced. Anyway, back to the research.
So they put the participants through the obstacle course to induce sweating, then asked them to play a run of the mill game of poker. To add a bit of spice to the game, one group had bags of the scare induced sweat hung underneath the table (I know, nice huh?), whereas the second group had bags of run of the mill sweat that was generated by people toiling away on exercise bikes for a while.
The smell of fear and poker
The results of the research are fascinating. The table with the fear induced sweat underneath it made much higher risk bets than the table with exercise induced sweat underneath it. In other words, the detection of another person’s stress and anxiety prompted each player to take more risks to capitalize on the situation. The researchers were not particularly sure why this happened however.
When both groups were asked to rate the smell of the fear induced sweat and its exercise based alternative, they found that both smelt pretty bad, but the participants could not distinguish between them, so the different reaction to both smells would appear to be a purely subconscious one.
Whilst it isn’t entirely clear why this happens, past research has shown that sweat produced by fear activates a different part of the brain than sweat produced by other means. The researchers suggest in their conclusion that this may have invoked a fight or flight type reaction in the poker players, which contributed to their risk taking.
Quite what the practical implications of this research in the workplace may be is somewhat harder to gauge. Whilst fear induced sweat did seem to have a marked impact on behaviour, it seems unlikely that managers will begin to douse their offices with a bit of sweat to change employee behaviour (you would hope anyway!).