The smell of death: evidence that putrescine elicits threat management mechanisms

Frontiers in Psychology 6:153623 (2015)
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Abstract

The ability to detect and respond to chemosensory threat cues in the environment plays a vital role in survival across species. However, little is known about which chemical compounds can act as olfactory threat signals in humans. We hypothesized that brief exposure to putrescine, a chemical compound produced by the breakdown of fatty acids in the decaying tissue of dead bodies, can function as a chemosensory warning signal, activating threat management responses (e.g., heightened alertness, fight-or-flight responses). This hypothesis was tested by gaging people’s responses to conscious and non-conscious exposure to putrescine. In Experiment 1, putrescine increased vigilance, as measured by a reaction time task. In Experiments 2 and 3, brief exposure to putrescine (vs. ammonia and a scentless control condition) prompted participants to walk away faster from the exposure site. Experiment 3 also showed that putrescine elicited implicit cognitions related to escape and threat. Experiment 4 found that exposure to putrescine, presented here below the threshold of conscious awareness, increased hostility toward an out-group member. Together, the results are the first to indicate that humans can process putrescine as a warning signal that mobilizes protective responses to deal with relevant threats. The implications of these results are briefly discussed.

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