Wednesday, October 28

Scented nonsense?

You may have read this one in your local paper: lemon scents make people more trustworthy, charitable and generous. The study by Katie Liljenquist (Brigham Young), Chen-Bo Zhong (University of Toronto) and Adam Galinsky (Northwestern) has apparently been accepted for publication in Psychological Sciences.

Basically, the researchers got subjects to play a trust game where subjects could pass money between each other or keep it. Money that was passed got multiplied, but there was a chance the other player could screw you by not passing much money back. Subjects were either in a room which was sprayed with lemon-scented Windex, or a room that wasn't. The subjects who were in the Windexed room passed more money back and forth.

The researchers did another experiment where people filled out a questionnaire about their wilingness to volunteer and donate to Habitat for Humanity. People in the Windexed room claimed to be more charitable and more willing to volunteer than people in the normal room.

As someone involved with experimental economics, this is a freaky finding. If our results can be drastically altered simply by spraying a room with Windex, experiments are pretty useless. We won't be able to tell if our results are because of economic institutions or because of how funky our lab smells.

This is an experiment that begs to be replicated. In their trust game treatment, they only had 28 subjects total (although for the Habitat for Humanity survey, they had 99 subjects). Their results are significant at the 5% level, which is surprising for such a small sample. But one wonders how robust the results are and if they'd hold up with more subjects at a different university in a different Windexed room.

The study is eerily similar to a tongue-in-cheek paper by Calgary economist Rob Oxoby that was recently published in Economic Inquiry (the acknowledgements are the best part). He found that economic experiments performed to AC-DC music sung by Brian Johnson elicited more efficient outcomes than experiments performed to AC-DC music sung by Bon Scott. But it was a joke.

Presumably, the Windex paper is not a joke. And if AC-DC or lemon scents can change people's behaviour, the field of experimental economics is in big trouble.