The sense of smell has been regarded as the least important of the five senses in western culture since at least the writings of Plato [1
]. However, depending on the historical source, olfaction is sometimes displaced by taste or touch for the lowest rank. By contrast, vision reigns supreme in the Western tradition, and there is a large scientific literature in the domains of cognition and perception on “visual dominance”. Visual dominance refers not only to neural processing [2
] but also to vision’s cultural and social primacy. For example, vision verbs dominate the conversation [3
]. Notably, in several non-Western cultures, smell plays a major role in rituals and other activities [4
]; for Andaman Islanders, scents are “vital energies”; and hunter-gatherer groups such as the Semaq Beri of the Malay peninsula have a more extensive and detailed vocabulary for olfactory attributes than they do for color hues [9
]. It is also the case that the attention, value, and meaning placed on scent in Western culture has risen and fallen dramatically during different historical periods [5
]. For instance, in early Christian rituals, scent enabled knowledge of the divine, and baptisms involved anointing the infant’s nostrils with scented oil to grant eternal “sweetening” [11
]. Thus, the relative sensory value of olfaction is contextually mediated and not an absolute value of the sense [5
Cross-cultural and historical accounts notwithstanding, the view that olfaction is the least important of the senses is witnessed in multiple domains of contemporary Western society. The American Medical Association Guides to Permanent Impairment [12
] states that “loss of smell” is equal to 1–5% of a person’s earnings, while loss of vision is given 85% of an individual’s worth. Likewise, it has been shown that the average person does not give their sense of smell much value. In a large survey study on the importance and attention to olfaction in daily life, Wrzesniewski et al. [13
] found that completely losing one’s sense of smell was ranked as equivalent to losing one’s little left toe or hearing in one ear. A direct examination of the relative importance of the senses was undertaken by Schifferstein [14
]. In this study, which was focused on the importance of various sensory experiences in product usage, respondents also answered the question: “suppose you were asked to give up one of your senses and you would have the choice, which one would it be?” It was found that the rank ordering of the senses from which they “would miss the most” to which they “would miss the least” was vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Apart from these reports, there are no investigations, that we know of, where the value of the sense of smell has been compared to the value of the other senses.
Notably, since the SARS-CoV-2 virus began circulating the globe in late 2019, there has been a dramatic increase in media attention and discussion of the sense of smell, as olfactory loss and dysfunction are diagnostic and often persistent symptoms of COVID-19 [15
]. In addition to media reporting, spikes in Google searches for “smell loss” and related terms such as “anosmia” have been so prevalent that they have been used as diagnostic tools to track COVID-19 outbreaks [18
]. Thus, it was of particular interest to assess the value of the sense of smell at this current moment in history.
The goal of the present research was to compare the value of the sense of smell with the value of vision and hearing in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. To address this goal, we created a short survey that examined how olfaction was evaluated compared to the senses of vision and hearing. To obtain a deeper and more nuanced understanding of the relative importance of these senses, we further examined how they were valued in relation to various common commodities of differing social, physical, and emotional meaningfulness. For example, “would you rather lose your sense of smell/vision/hearing or your phone? Would you rather lose your sense of smell/vision/hearing or your pet? Would you rather lose your sense of smell/vision/hearing or your favorite streaming service?” Additionally, we performed a pseudoreplication of Wrzesniewski et al. [13
] and included the commodity “little left toe”; “would you rather lose your sense of smell/vision/hearing or your little left toe?”
Exposure to traditional news media and reckoning with physical decline both increase with age and life-stage [20
]. We thus expected more mature participants to have both greater knowledge and exposure to the negative impact of smell loss (e.g., as a result of COVID-19) and higher general awareness of sensory and physical dysfunction. To address whether age/life experiences (life-stage) would affect the value placed on the senses (especially olfaction), individuals from two life-stage groups were recruited: (1) undergraduate college students and (2) adults from the general population. We also examined whether gender would mediate the findings, as females have been shown to be generally more engaged with scent in everyday life than males [22
], and to have somewhat better olfactory acuity over their lifespan [23
Our hypotheses were as follows: (1) Respondents would be more willing to give up their sense of smell than their senses of hearing or vision; (2) Individuals in the older, more life-experienced general public group would place a higher value on their sense of smell than college students; (3) Female respondents would be less willing to give up their sense of smell than male respondents; (4) As a pseudoreplication of Wrzesniewski et al. [13
], respondents would be more willing to give up their sense of smell for their little left toe than they would be willing to give up vision or hearing for their little left toe.
We also explored how the emotional value and meaningfulness of the commodity in question modulated responses and whether this varied across the three senses. For example, would more respondents be willing to give up a sense to keep their pets and phones than to keep their social media and streaming services? And would these effects be observed for all three senses or just smell and/or hearing but not vision? Thus, we were able to explore the discrepancy between the value placed on the sense of smell with the value placed on vision and hearing, as well as the relative value of hearing compared to vision. Our study provides the first report on how the senses of olfaction, hearing, and vision are comparatively valued and evaluated in relation to a range of personal commodities.
The results of our survey research dramatically illustrate the negligible value people place on their sense of smell and reveal a number of intriguing factors that support and mediate these findings. Consistent with previous empirical work [13
] and contemporary Western designations (American Medical Association [12
], hypothesis 1 was very strongly supported; respondents were much more willing to give up their sense of smell than their senses of hearing or vision. When directly asked to select one sense to give up, the vast majority of respondents chose to give up their sense of smell, in comparison to those who opted to give up hearing or vision. The sense of smell was also given up by far more respondents in favor of keeping the various commodities assessed than hearing or vision were (discussed further below). Thus, in spite of the COVID-19 pandemic directing a high level of public attention on the sense of smell, and the toll on the quality of life that anosmia takes [35
], it appears that, as Schifferstein found in 2006 [14
], olfaction remains ranked as the least valuable sense. It would be ideal if we could directly compare our data to Schifferstein [14
] as a gauge for whether or how the value placed on the sense of smell has changed with time. However, as the importance of the sensory modalities in Schifferstein [14
] was presented as rank averages it is not possible to convert our data to enable a meaningful comparison. In future studies, it is hoped that our findings may be a useful benchmark.
Hypothesis 2 was also clearly supported. When directly asked to give up one sense, respondents in the more mature GP group were less willing to give up their sense of smell than respondents in the CS group. Additionally, across commodities, the GP group was less willing to give up their sense of smell than the CS group. However, several interesting commodity-specific effects were observed (discussed below).
We surmised that the reason respondents in the GP group were less inclined to give up their sense of smell than those in the CS group was because, being older and more life-experienced, GP respondents had a generally higher comprehension of physical/sensory impairment and more exposure to olfactory health information. We did not have a direct measure to confirm that the GP group was more informed about olfactory health; however, substantially more respondents in the GP knew the correct definition of “anosmia” than respondents in the CS, which implies greater olfactory health awareness. However, it may not be the case that the GP group was more aware of sensory impairment, as the percentage of respondents who reported an olfactory sensory impairment was equivalent between the two groups. Nonetheless, respondents in the GP group likely had a greater comprehension of physical decline as awareness of mortality is known to increase with age [37
]. Another possibility for the difference between groups, based on the demographic data we collected, is that socio-economics were involved. The GP respondents were predominantly middle-class while there were proportionally more high-income respondents in the CS group. That said, wealth fails to account for the fact that the CS group was more willing to give up their sense of smell for the material commodities of their phone, $
10,000, dream vacations, online shopping, and streaming services than respondents in the GP group were.
Other explanations that were not captured by the brief demographic questions in our survey may also mediate the discrepancy in willingness to give up their sense of smell (as well as hearing and vision) between the GP and CS respondents. One possibility is the general education level. Although all the respondents in the CS group were engaged in higher education, we did not ask respondents to indicate their education level and it is certain that some proportion of respondents in the GP group had advanced degrees. Thus, general education level may be a mediator of the effects. Moving forward, a deeper exploration of individual differences that are involved in attachment to the sense of smell, as well as one’s senses in general, should be undertaken.
Surprisingly, despite prior research showing greater female olfactory acuity and engagement [22
], and that more female respondents in our study knew the correct definition of “anosmia”, which we construed as an indirect metric for understanding smell loss, we did not observe that females would be less willing to give up their sense of smell than males. Thus, hypothesis 3 was not supported. Rather, when all commodities were included in the analysis, we found the reverse; females were more likely to give up their sense of smell than males were.
However, a closer examination of responses to the commodities revealed that the lower value placed on the sense of smell by women in our study was due to their placing an especially high value on their pets and hair compared to men. When the commodities of pet and hair were removed from the analysis no gender differences in willingness to give up the sense of smell were observed. We also found that gender was not a significant factor in our model building. Notably, there were approximately three times more female than male respondents, which should have skewed our findings towards finding a gender effect in favor of female responding if one existed.
The null effect of gender is consistent with Wrzesniewski et al. [13
] who found that the importance of olfaction was judged to be largely similar by men and women across a wide range of issues. Schifferstein [14
] found a general effect of females giving higher value to all the senses than males, but smell did not stand out differently from vision, hearing, touch, or taste. Furthermore, although Oleszkiewicz et al. [22
] reported that women reported more olfactory encounters on a daily basis than men, this finding was paradoxically driven by women in the group of participants who had olfactory deficits and was not found among healthy controls. Our findings contrast with physiological evidence for greater olfactory sensitivity among females than males [23
]; however, physiological acuity may not mediate subjective responses. On balance, it seems that how questions are posed and what comparisons are made mediates whether gender will modify subjective engagement with the sense of smell.
Substantiating the trivial value given to the sense of smell described by Wrzesniewski et al. [13
], we found that respondents were much more willing to give up their sense of smell for their “little left toe” than they were willing to give up vision or hearing for their little left toe. Thus hypothesis 4 was supported. Notably, Wrzesniewski et al. [13
] reported that permanent loss of smell was ranked on par with losing one’s little left toe. By contrast, smell fared better in our survey as we found that the majority of respondents were unwilling to trade their sense of smell for their little left toe. Various explanations for the difference in findings between these two studies are possible, not least of which is how the question was worded. However, from the totality of our results, we do not believe that the status of the sense of smell has been elevated in public opinion overall.
As expected, barely any of the respondents were willing to give up hearing or vision in favor of their little left toe. Interestingly, the proportion of respondents willing to give up their sense of smell for their little left toe was equivalent between genders and life-stage groups, suggesting that the value of one’s toe is not meditated by demographic characteristics, at least not those evaluated here. The responses obtained for “little left toe” now lead to a discussion of some of the most interesting findings of our study: how the specific commodities in question mediated the results.
In a shocking indictment of how little value is given to the sense of smell, especially among younger adults, a quarter of the college students surveyed stated that they would give up their sense of smell in order to keep their “phone”—an easily replaceable commodity. Just over a quarter of the CS respondents would also give up their sense of smell for “$10,000”, indicating that when it comes to one’s money or sense of smell, young adults are likely to take the money and run. In the GP group, relatively fewer respondents jettisoned their sense of smell for these commodities; however, the numbers were still surprisingly high; 15% and 16% of respondents, respectively, stated that they would give up their sense of smell in order to keep their “phone” and “$10,000”.
In addition to revealing how easily the sense of smell was discarded in favor of simple material commodities (for example, 7% and 6%, respectively, of all respondents would give up their sense of smell to shop on Amazon or watch Netflix), several noteworthy patterns emerged. Of particular interest were the responses observed for “pet” and “hair”. The greatest willingness over any sense in favor of keeping a commodity was seen for one’s pet. Nearly half of all respondents would give up their sense of smell to keep their pet, and far more respondents were willing to give up hearing and vision in order to keep their pet compared to any other commodity. The salience of one’s pet is particularly striking if one considers that 13% of respondents would rather become blind than give up their pet. However, it may not be so startling if one considers that in contemporary North American culture most people confer family member status to their pets [38
], substantial and persistent grief over the loss of a pet is often seen [39
], and, in 2020, 103.6 billion dollars were spent on pets in the US alone [40
], which exceeds the gross domestic product of a number of nations.
The second most cherished commodity was “hair”, with over one-third of all respondents willing to part with their sense of smell in order to keep their hair, and 10% of respondents willing to give up their hearing to keep their hair. However, very few participants would give up vision to keep their hair. Premature hair loss is known to cause psychological distress [41
]. However, for both the senses of smell and hearing marked gender differences in willingness to give up one’s hair were observed. Many more females were willing to part with the sense in question in order to keep their hair; 41% of female respondents were willing to part with their sense of smell to keep their hair vs. 27% of male respondents, and 11% of female respondents vs. 4% male respondents would give up hearing for their hair. This gender difference is not unexpected, given that femininity is highly linked to having a full head of hair [42
]. Hair loss has also been shown to be associated with substantial psychological distress and decreased quality of life for women [43
], and while men with baldness also experience stress it is typically less psychologically taxing for males due to societal norms associated with male hair loss [45
]. Nevertheless, it is stunning evidence of the insignificance of smell that nearly half of all female respondents would give up this sensory system—a primary physiological, neurological, and psychological mode through which the world is experienced—in order to keep a physical feature with minimal functional utility. Notably, we did not specify the meaning of “hair”, and though it was assumed that most people interpreted “hair” as the hair on one’s head, it is possible that some respondents interpreted it as body hair, and/or facial hair, or any hair on the body/head. In future administrations of this survey, “hair” should be defined more precisely.
Female respondents were also more willing than males to give up their sense of smell for their pets. However, no gender differences were found for giving up the senses of hearing or vision for pets. Females have been shown to be more attached to companion animals than males [46
] and to suffer more grief from pet death than males [39
]. That no gender differences were observed for the senses of hearing and vision underscores how valuable these senses were perceived to be compared to smell, and that the importance of pets overall is very high.
Relative to the sense of smell, but not hearing or vision, the desire to keep one’s “pet” and “hair” also distinguished the GP and CS groups. Substantially more CS than GP respondents would give up their sense of smell in order to keep their pets and hair. That college students were more attached to their pets is not unexpected since the CS respondents may have been away from home for the first time and loneliness increases bonding with pets [47
], and pets provide emotional support and companionship [48
]. The differences between the life-stage groups for the importance of hair were also likely driven by the excessive social value placed on the importance of physical appearance for young women and the stressors regarding physical attraction that younger individuals face [43
]. It would now be important to know how life-stage mediates the value of other highly emotionally personal commodities.
Our survey revealed that the rank order of commodities from most to least importance (by how willing respondents were to give up a sense for it, particularly the sense of smell) was pet, hair, $
10,000, phone, little left toe, dream vacation, online shopping, favorite streaming service, and favorite social media site. However, when considering the types of commodities we included in our survey (digital, material, emotional, physical), it is intriguing that they did not cluster in an obvious way. That is, hair and little left toe (physical commodities) were valued quite differently, as were the material commodities of $
10,000 and dream vacation, even though a dream vacation could easily cost $
10,000. This suggests that how the commodities were interpreted is not straightforward. For example, a dream vacation may connote an aspirational goal while $
10,000 connotes concrete wealth. It is also notable that the digital commodities of “online shopping” and “streaming service” were very similarly valued and yet “social media” was deemed far less important. Indeed, “social media” was the least valued of all the commodities surveyed, and the only commodity for which respondents were not more likely to give up their ability to smell over their ability to see. The very low value given to social media is especially surprising given the extensive literature detailing the obsession and addiction to social media in contemporary society [50
]. It is possible that since modes of popular social media change so frequently and the content of what is trending is so transient and variable that the general concept of social media was not given much value. Thus, it may have been more meaningful had the commodity been phrased with greater specificity such as “your Tik Tok account”. On the other hand, it is possible that this survey item tapped into the despair that a preoccupation with social media incurs and that there is in fact a strong desire to spend less of one’s time on it [53
]. In further examinations, the types of commodities analyzed should be expanded to discover what schemas underlie them.
With regard to the comparative value of hearing versus vision, our survey revealed that they were assessed much more similarly than might have been expected. When forced to choose a sense to give up there was a noticeable difference in the number of respondents willing to part with hearing versus sight; however, this difference was far less dramatic than the difference observed between the number of respondents giving up smell versus hearing. When respondent responses were collapsed across commodities for willingness to give up the sense, the difference between hearing and vision, though statistically meaningful, was quite small, and when the commodities were examined individually, the only commodities for which willingness to give up hearing and vision differed was for pet and hair; the most emotionally reactive commodities in our survey. Schifferstein [14
] found that when participants were asked what sensory modality they would miss most if lost, hearing directly followed vision, and smell came in last of the five senses. However, when participants were asked to evaluate the importance of each of the senses in various product categories ranging from vehicles to personal care, the value of hearing fell considerably in importance [14
]. This illustrates that context is critical when considering the value of the senses.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the term “anosmia” was not commonly known to non-clinicians. However, with loss of smell being a major symptom of COVID-19, we expected the term “anosmia” to have become familiar to average individuals. “Anosmia” rose dramatically as a search term during the pandemic [18
], and was discussed in detail in a very widely disseminated and cited New York Times
]. Indeed, we found very high knowledge of the definition of “anosmia”, with over three-quarters of the respondents knowing the correct meaning. This provides indirect support for the supposition that COVID-19 has increased knowledge of smell loss and its terminology and suggests that “anosmia” has entered the common lexicon.
We also observed that more respondents in the GP group knew the correct definition of “anosmia” and they also placed more value on their sense of smell than respondents in the CS group. We considered knowledge of “anosmia” to be a proxy for knowledge about olfactory dysfunction. Thus, we interpret this finding for the life-stage group as reflecting that GP respondents knew more about the negative impact on quality of life that anosmia can have, and this related to their valuing their sense of smell more highly than respondents in the CS group. We also observed that more females knew the correct definition of anosmia than did males. However, gender did not mediate our findings. It is noted that, due to the gender imbalance in our study, we do not know if knowledge of the correct meaning of “anosmia” has a bearing on the potential to find gender differences in appreciation for the sense of smell in future research.
There were several limitations to our study. First, for a comprehensive analysis of olfaction’s place among the senses, touch and taste should have been assessed. We elected not to include touch and taste due to the subjectivity and variability in how respondents might interpret these senses. Most people do not realize that the sense of taste is responsible for only a small set of oral sensations (e.g., sweet, sour, salty, bitter), often confuse the perceptions of taste and smell, and erroneously construe “taste” as primarily responsible for the enjoyment of food. Indeed, lacking awareness of the fact that olfaction is a primary driver of flavor could have led respondents to further undervalue their sense of smell in the present study. Interpretation of the sense of touch is also ambiguous, as it is often narrowly understood as relevant to pain and/or sexual pleasure, which would have biased respondents’ value of it accordingly. If this survey were administered with detailed explanations, all five senses should be included, and a complete and more accurate evaluation of olfaction’s place among the senses could be ascertained.
Another limitation stems from our participant sample. Respondents were recruited from exclusive east coast universities or were connected to friends and colleagues of the authors, and, as such, represented a narrow socio-demographic segment of North American society. It would be important now to administer this survey to a more diverse population and to translate the survey into different languages to determine how generalizable the findings are. This would further illuminate how individual differences mediate the value of the senses as well as various commodities. There was also a large imbalance in the number of male and female respondents. A more equal distribution of male and female respondents, as well as individuals who define themselves in non-binary gender terms, should have been included. Additionally, only three respondents in the GP and CS groups, respectively (N = 6), reported an olfactory impairment. As this represents less than 1.5% of all respondents, we do not believe it had an impact on the data. However, had a larger number of individuals with olfactory loss been tested, it might have altered the priority given to the other senses over smell. It is now of interest to administer this questionnaire to individuals with varying degrees of olfactory dysfunction.
A further limitation relevant to our sample was that we collected very minimal demographic information. Notably absent were any data on race, ethnicity, geography (location, rural-urban), to name but a few. Issues pertaining to geography may be especially germane for the GP group since they are from more widely dispersed locations than students from campuses that are only 60 miles apart; though since the data were collected during the COVID-19 pandemic when teaching at Boston College and Brown University was conducted remotely, many of the college students might have been living in their family home rather than on campus, thus representing a more varied geographic range. Lacking this information, however, curtails how much we can discern from our respondent samples and reiterates the importance of a direct examination of demographic factors in future research.
Finally, despite an attempt to incorporate a range of commodities of varying psychological value and emotional meaningfulness, our commodity list was very limited (presenting only nine commodities from a potentially endless list) and was also unbalanced. For example, we included an approximately equal number of digital commodities (online shopping, social media, streaming services) and physical commodities ($10,000, hair, pet, little left toe), “phone” can be considered both a digital and a physical commodity, but only one aspirational commodity (dream vacation). There were also many inherent differences within categories for the various types of commodities as discussed above. If a longer survey were developed, it would be valuable to dive deeper into commodities representing a wider range of real-life and aspirational experiences as well as more commodities with intense emotional and social value. In future administrations of this survey, commodities could also be tailored for specific demographics; for instance, additional physical attribute commodities could be included if one were interested in gender differences and more material commodities if one were interested in socio-economic factors. Relatedly, although a discussion of the items with colleagues and a small pilot analysis was conducted during the survey development, we did not formally test the validity of our questionnaire prior to administration. We plan to use this questionnaire in future investigations which will help determine its validity and replicability, and we welcome any independent assessments.