The Fable Of The Human Pheromone

By Debra Kelly on Sunday, November 8, 2015
Woman Enjoying the Smell of a Rose
“Take your paper, too, / And let me have them very well perfumed, / For she is sweeter than perfume itself / To whom they go to.” —William Shakespeare, “The Taming of the Shrew”

In A Nutshell

We’ve all heard that humans put off a certain scent, a pheromone, that makes us more attractive to our chosen partner or a potential partner. While pheromones have been found in insects and other mammals, none have ever been found in humans. The myth was started with some wishful thinking and some cleverly presented “facts” at a 1991 conference in Paris, and even though it’s been debunked in countless studies, it’s still widely believed.

The Whole Bushel

You’ll hear about them often, especially around Valentine’s Day from companies trying to cash in on selling “love” (or at least “lust”) in any way imaginable. They’re pheromones, and the idea is that we all give them off to attract an appropriate soulmate.

Bad news: No human pheromones have ever been isolated.

Do they exist? Based on the science that has allowed us to find pheromones in other mammals, the answer to that one is a resounding “Maybe?”

Pheromones were first observed in bugs in the 1930s. It wasn’t until 1959 that the original terms (ectohormones, homoiohormones, and alloiohormones) were replaced with the more pronounceable “pheromones.” Pheromones were defined as a substance secreted by an individual into their surroundings, designed to react with others (by smell, ingestion, or taste) for a desired result. Most of those were, of course, used to jump-start the reproductive process.

Pheromones were found in mammals, too, serving much the same role, but in mammals, it was a bit more complicated. In mammals, pheromones were a signal rather than a stimuli that actively influenced behavior.

The idea of pheromones really took off when primate researcher Richard Michaels published his findings on a scent given off by female rhesus monkeys that seemed to encourage the attention of the males. Later, though, a 1982 study debunked the idea that the pheromones were causing the interest, and an elimination of scent as a factor resulted in pretty much the same behaviors.

Research jumped to humans in the 1990s, with studies trying to prove that men and women were more or less attracted to each other based on their exposure to pheromones, and that a chemical called androstenedione had something to do with arousal. Study after study seemed to debunk the whole idea, but thanks to a 1991 conference in Paris and a company called EROX, people were rather enamored with the idea that human pheromones were a real and powerful thing.

After the conference, studies continued but still failed to come across reproducible results. Even in 2014, we were still running studies on how smelling certain secreted compounds influenced people’s opinions of images of the opposite sex.

So do people have pheromones? The answer might be so elusive because we’ve been looking in the wrong place. Not surprisingly, researchers of all kinds have been focused on the sort of pheromones that increase sexual attraction and arousal, but it’s been suggested that there’s another type of pheromones that might be easier to find, one that would allow new mothers to communicate with their babies. The idea that a pheromone is at least partially responsible for the connection between a hungry baby and a nursing mother is an intriguing one, and it might go a long way to explaining the generations-old success of wet nurses.

In the meantime, though, while we’ve found any number of odor-producing hormones, we have yet to isolate one that acts with a definite, determined purpose as defined by pheromones in other animals.

Show Me The Proof

The Guardian: Sexing up the human pheromone story: How a corporation started a scientific myth
Slate: The Scent of a Woman
Neurobiology of Chemical Communication, Richard L. Doty