Is There A Science To Attraction? I Smelled A Stranger To Find Out

Photographed by Savana Ogburn.
I removed my glasses, placed an eye mask over my eyes, turned to my right, leaned in... and sniffed the wrist of the woman sitting next to me. Though I’d later discover we had a friend in common, I’d never met her before, and we hadn’t spoken beyond introducing ourselves. She smelled nice: clean and slightly floral, like the classic, familiar bar soap that millennials have allegedly murdered.
At our host’s direction, we smelled each other’s forearms, then upper arms… and decided to pass on the option to sniff each other’s armpits, considering we’d had to do 20 jumping jacks a few minutes earlier and I hadn’t reapplied deodorant since that morning. “How many people found that sexy?” our host asked. “Yeah, right,” my partner scoffed, though she’d just assured me I smelled “lovely.” I thought again of the deodorant sitting, untouched, in my desk drawer at work.
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I wasn't just sniffing a stranger randomly; I was attending Attraction Lab, an event hosted by Guerilla Science. The New York- and London-based group is dedicated to, as they put it, “creat[ing] entertaining, quirky and unforgettable experiences for you, to inspire new ways of looking at the world.” Launched in London in 2013, Attraction Lab is one of Guerilla Science’s longest-running events — though it’s recently undergone a few tweaks.
Attraction Lab was originally a singles’ event called Sensory Speed-Dating — and it often led to people making out in the corners, the night’s host Chris Duffy, a comedian and writer for Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, told us. The event I attended was open to all, with the room divided into singles’ section and a couples’ section. Held at the Intrepid Museum in New York and co-hosted by astronomer Jana Grcevich, the event I went to was only the second one open to couples. “I would tell my friends about it who were in partnerships, and they would be like ‘that sounds like a really fun, interesting evening, I want to do that,’” Guerilla Science’s Head of Operations, Olivia Koski, tells me on the phone the day after the event.
At the Attraction Lab I attended, singles were paired randomly, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, or age. “Our fundamental goal as an organization is to give people fun experiences and connect them with science; we’re not a dating company,” Koski says. “We get that people are there and they are looking for love, and it’s like, ‘Well, you might not find love, but hopefully you’ll have a weird story that you can tell your friends about, and you might leave thinking differently about who you’re attracted to and why.’”
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Doing jumping jacks and then smelling a stranger was the third exercise of the night. The first two tasks involved telling another stranger about a recently embarrassing moment (mine: showing up underdressed to an event), and feeding yet another stranger freeze-dried tomatoes and carrots, chased by a delicious piece of chocolate. There were six "attraction exercises" in total, each dedicated to a different sense. Along with the ones I’ve already mentioned, there was a "touch" round during which we felt a stranger’s hand, arm, then cheek (and after the smell round, that didn’t feel as intimate as it sounds). The final round was based on movement. For that one, we danced with a partner. And, oh yeah, all but one of the activities were done blindfolded, Bird Box-style. The only sighted activity: gazing into a stranger’s eyes for over a minute. The bartenders at the drinks table told me they’d had a fun time watching us flail around, and I later found pieces of dehydrated vegetables in my bra.
The amount of time spent blindfolded is intentional, Guerilla Science’s Head of Operations, Olivia Koski, tells me. "Most of the time when we think of who we’re attracted to, or how we attract people, we think visual: someone looks attractive. We wanted to explore how we rely on the rest of our senses in order to choose a mate," she says.
Though the exercises might sound silly, Guerilla Science sent me a reference list includes over 20 scientific studies. They included a 1984 study titled "Self-disclosure, intimacy, and the depenetration process" (that’s the one that says telling a stranger an embarrassing moment will make you feel closer to them — which checks out, though I found it more friendship-inducing than sexy), and several 2016 studies, including one titled "Pupil dilation as an index of preferred mutual gaze duration" (that’s the eye-gazing one, which I actually found to be pretty flirtatious, after the initial awkwardness). Guerilla Science works with scientists and researchers to stay up-to-date on the science of attraction, Koski says, "but humans are so complicated that it is quite a big scientific challenge to decode romance from a scientific perspective."
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After each exercise, our hosts asked us to raise our hands if we felt that the situation was sexy. And although the food-tasting exercise was primarily based on a study on chimpanzees, it’s consistently the one that human beings find the most sexy, Koski says. "Taste is usually the one that’s most fun, because there’s a lot of opportunity for things to go wrong, but in a fun, sexy way," she says. "And it’s not as intimate as ‘smell me!’"
Although both Koski and the promotional materials for Attraction Lab made it very clear that this night was not intended to be a speed-dating event, it still felt like one: I got up close and personal, whether physically or emotionally, with six strangers. There was one problem, though, and it’s a common problem for singles' events everywhere. The singles’ section was dominated by straight women hoping to meet men… which meant that I was exclusively paired with other women, and most of them seemed pretty annoyed to be paired with me. Having your partner cross their arms, turn away from you, and gaze longingly at the leather-jacket-wearing, floppy-haired man across the room is not the sexiest situation. I can’t blame them, though — while I was comped a ticket as press, they paid $20 to attend, plus $6 per drink.
"We always struggle to get the men to show up," Koski admits, adding that she and her partner connected because she recruited him — then her neighbour — to attend one of the first Sensory Speed-Dating events. Though they weren’t paired for the exercises, they hit it off and now have two children.
While I didn’t find a date at Attraction Lab, I did grab pizza afterwards with the woman I sniffed — along with our mutual friend, who happened to also be in attendance. And Attraction Lab did have me thinking about past sensory attractions: how intoxicating it felt to sit next to someone I was crushing on, or how ridiculously good a certain ex smelled. With photo-focused dating apps priming us to make a split-second decision about a potential partner based solely on their appearance, the reminder that our other senses are just as important was a refreshing change of pace. I wonder what a scratch-and-sniff version of Tinder would be like...
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