I Get Letters…

An amusing letter arrived earlier this week:

Hello,
My name is Margot and I’m the webmaster of
http://www.best-pheromones.com. I wanted to know if you could do a paid UNBIASED review of our product/site.  Please let me know if you are interested.
Thank you,

Margot [name and email removed]

I was especially intrigued by the capitalization of “unbiased.” After I got done laughing, I sent back a response:

Dear Margot,
I am an entomologist, and I write about insect pheromones, and the way they are used in agriculture.
I will not be linking to your commercial website, nor accepting cash to write about what I think (here’s my UNBIASED opinion) is a crock of BS. Human pheromones have little documentation in the scientific literature.

Bug Girl

For the record, Margot sent me a very polite thank-you back. Point to Margot. :)

Now, there are a few human chemicals that do seem to meet the definition of a pheromone. You can read a nice introduction to what is known about human pheromones in this APA article. The pioneer in human pheromone research is Martha McClintock, who first isolated and showed that a pheromone was responsible for synchronizing women’s menstrual cycles.

This is probably not the compound for sale at the commercial website. At least, I hope not–I really don’t think a guy dousing himself in that compound will get the response he wants.

There are some other compounds that do seem to induce changes in human physiology. The compounds that have been studied most are steroid musks (androstenol and related compounds) produced by glands in men’s underarms. Yummy!

However, the physiological changes that have been reported are not the “do me now!” that is sold by human pheromone companies. I think this bit from a peer-reviewed paper’s abstract is important:

“Although this is additional evidence that androstadienone may be a pheromone, it is yet to be determined whether humans exude concentrations into the air adequate for social communication or process this chemical information within natural social contexts.”

Translation: we can make a chemical, and we can measure that it’s doing something. But we don’t know if this actually happens in day-to-day human life.

I think it’s significant that another peer-reviewed study found a chemical could affect women’s mood, but not their behavior. From the abstract:

“The results showed that exposure to a non-detectable amount of androstadienone modulated women’s psychophysiological arousal and mood in a positive direction but did not change attention performance or rating of facial attractiveness. Moreover, mood effects were only evident when an experimenter of the opposite sex conducted the testing. This suggests that social context is important for mood effects of androstadienone exposure in women. “

Interestingly, the results were the same in a different study when they tested a proposed female pheromone on men–the sex of the interviewer affected the action of the test compound. My inference from this is that as humans, we respond primarily to the person interviewing us, rather than how they smell. Which is pretty logical, given that we are a highly visual and social animal.

I also was intrigued by this study looking at the effects of a proposed human pheromone on marketing–men exposed to a male pheromone felt more manly, but it had no effect on women.

If the results are so mediocre, why are so many researchers working on the issue of human pheromones? Just how much money is being made on human “pheromones,” anyway? One company (traded under stock symbol EROX) reports revenues of 1.2 million bucks. And that’s just one company of the many, many companies in on this snake oil that supposedly gets you laid.

I suspect that most human pheromones sold would fail a chemical test comparing what chemicals are actually in them with what’s claimed to be in the bottle. And, given that the cheapest human pheromone I’ve seen was $25/ounce, that’s a highly profitable ripoff.

Lastly, there is also a larger ethical question in play here.
WTF makes someone pay large sums of money–usually over the internet–to buy a mystery liquid that claims to make them irresistible? If some of the claims of these companies were true, they are essentially selling a date-rape drug. Which would make the person buying this stuff pretty despicable, IMHO.

Additional reading:

Symposium: On the nature of mammalian and human pheromones
The McClintock paper in Nature, demonstrating menstrual synchrony
The other likely human pheromone: a review of mother-baby physiology and behavior

5 thoughts on “I Get Letters…

  1. While watching the first episode of “Torchwood”, I was struck by a basic fallacy in the idea of a pheromone spray: even if it did work, it wouldn’t be targeted very well. The way the guy was using it in the show seemed to me to be particularly ill-advised; he was spraying it on himself in a crowded bar, using an atomizer that was sure to get it all over the place, not just on him. If it worked as advertised, this strikes me not so much as a seduction tool, as a formula for an impromptu orgy involving everybody close enough to smell it. We should be thankful that these pheromones don’t work as advertised.

  2. I saw a story in the paper yesterday how research shows the people may (literally) be able to “smell” trouble! If I find it I’ll send it along…

  3. Pingback: Psychology as magic: Beware! (pheromones) « Mr. Darrell’s Psychology

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