Human pheromones: wishful thinking

Slate has a fantastic article about the science of scents and why ‘attraction-boosting’ human pheromone products are selling nothing but myths.

The article takes a curious look at the history of misapplied pheromone research and how it’s been used to sell everything from aftershave to soap.

“The whole pheromone thing got picked up by the mass media,” says Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Smell and Taste Research Center and author of The Great Pheromone Myth. It feeds into our need to believe, he said, that there “is all this subliminal stuff going on that is affecting us—who we mate with, who we want to be with. It’s this mythical perspective.” And marketers, like women’s magazines, are only too happy to exploit that myth. That’s how a whole junk-science industry of pheromone-perfumes, pheromone-soaps, and pheromone-cosmetics managed to spring up from a strange menagerie of misconstrued mammal studies.

Personally, I’ve always believed in the power of the scent of raw man, which, I have discovered, is surprisingly under-appreciated.

Link to Slate article on the pheromone hype.

24 thoughts on “Human pheromones: wishful thinking”

  1. I agree that alleged pheromone-containing products are nonsense, but I can’t be sure about pheromones per se. I can sniff out a man at 20 paces or so. In my experience they come in three basic scents: 1. Wowza 2. Neutral and 3. Don’t go there. (the last usually smelling like a male relative.)

    I doubt this could be reproduced in a lab, but it’s saved me from a lot of bad dates (which I guess would be the point, after all.)

  2. Yeh I agree, this whole pheromone product brigade is nonsense. I doubt any of these chemicals produce arousal in the opposite sex.

    Natural pheromones might play a part in our sexual selection, but they are only a small part of all the other myriad of things going on.

    Plus, our abilities to sniff out pheromones is greatly reduced compared to other animals. Sure, at a subliminal level pheromones *might* be passing information from one person to another, but it’s not same as a female being able to sniff out a potential mate among a group of males.

    1. It is precisely the same as when the females of other species sniff out a potential mate among a group of males, or sniff out their choice of food from among a selection of foods. What, in your opinion, is not the same? Women can sniff out differences in genetically determined “tissue type” as someone already indicated — just like every other species. For all we know, the article author, Doty, and others who say there’s no such thing as human pheromones are either beyond hope of increasing their ability to attract, or expect immediate sexual gratification due to pheromone-enhanced product use. That’s just pitiful!

  3. I thought when I read this link this article would discuss when pheromones actually worked in one’s benefit. I mean affecting one’s behavior. Wishful thinking.

    I really am glad I came across this blog.

    Thanks for posting.

  4. I think most people don’t realize researchers like Doty and me have vested interests. If I had missed out on any understanding of the concept of human pheromones throughout a long career, like Doty has, I might also try to convince others they are being suckered in, as in many cases, they are. But, Doty and many other researchers are familiar with my work, and its validation via my publications and research presentations. For Doty to avoid mentioning anything about me or my work in his book was not likely to be an error due to forgetfulness. Only by ignoring the biological basis that I have fully detailed to explain how mammalian pheromones, including human pheromones work, can Doty get away with his ridiculous ruse.

  5. Kohl (2012) Human pheromones and food odors: epigenetic influences on the socioaffective nature of evolved behaviors. Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology 2: 17338
    – DOI: 10.3402/snp.v2i0.17338

    Conclusion (excerpts)
    “… when viewed from the consistency of animal models and conditioned behaviors, food odors are obviously more important to food selection than is our visual perception of food. Animal models affirm that food odor makes food either appealing or unappealing. Animal models reaffirm that it is the pheromones of other animals that makes them either appealing or unappealing.”

    “Olfaction and odor receptors provide a clear evolutionary trail that can be followed from unicellular organisms to insects to humans. (Keller et al., 2007; Kohl, 2007; Villarreal, 2009; Vosshall, Wong, & Axel, 2000).”

    1. To argue from food odours and the biochemistry of microbes and invertebrates in order to reach the commercially self-serving conclusion that human sexual behaviour is influenced by semiochemicals is to take a very long and winding road to a conclusion that can only be rigorously based on results from humans themselves.

      1. The results from across-species comparisons in bacteria, yeasts, nematodes, insects, and other mammals were exemplified in a human population that arose during the past ~30,000 years in what is now central China. A single nutrient-dependent amino acid substitution is all that’s required to change the scent signature to one that is population-specific. This enables “Nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution: a model” to accurately represent the entirety of ecological, social, neurogenic, and socio-cognitive niche construction across species from microbes to man, sans mutations theory.

        See, for example: Kohl (2013) Socioaffective Neuroscience & Psychology.

        Your comment about my “commercially self-serving conclusion” drawn from my publication and presentation history are typical of under-informed human pheromone-deniers and it would not be taken seriously by anyone with whom I have ever discussed my works.

  6. James V Kohl

    My characterisation of your conclusions as commercially self-serving has nothing to do with your record of presentations and publications – it is derived from your position as a commercializer of formulations with alleged pheromonal activity in humans.

    Since you think that I am uninformed, perhaps you can direct me to a peer reviewed publication in which a “human pheromone” has been chemically characterized ?

    1. We have chemically characterized a mixture of androstenol, which alters luteinizing hormone, and androsterone, which appears to be a species-specific indicator of individual human male reproductive fitness, by showing the affect of the mixture on women in their ovulatory phase who were not using oral contraceptives. Please recommend a journal that might consider publishing our initial result or our replication.
      It seems the precisely paralleled model of cause and effect demonstrable in every other species of mammals in not convincing to reviewers (and people like you) who seem to believe that a stereotypical affect on behavior, akin to that of insects, must accompany the claim that our mixture contains human pheromones. I thought that most people knew there might be a big difference in the response of an insect and the response of women. Thanks for exemplifying how wrong I was about that. Clearly, you are not uninformed except in the context of across-species comparisons of cause and effect. See: Human pheromones, epigenetics, physiology, and the development of animal behavior.

      1. The concept of “pheromone” and the usefulness of the term itself depends on its being reserved for exactly those kinds of chemical signal that elicit “stereotyped” behaviours in their recipients. If “pheromone” is used as a synonym for chemical signal in the general sense (semiochemical is the formal term) then it loses its value as a separate and distinct term. Plainly humans emit chemicals that influence the behaviour of other humans, there is no dispute at all about that. Where there is dispute is whether human chemical signals (and chemical cues) can sensibly be called pheromones. To demonstrate that you have characterized a human pheromone you would need to to show that you have identified its presence in human emissions, show a correlation of its occurrence or abundance with some biological condition (e.g. sex or menstrual cycle) and demonstrate a measurable behavioural or physiological response to exposure to the putative pheromone (which need not be a single chemical) at concentrations which approximate those found naturally. For an example see Schaal’s work on mammary pheromones in rabbits. If such work is thoroughly done I would expect reputable journals to be willing to publish it – but like any other submission it would be subject to peer review.

      2. My most recent peer-reviewed publication incorporates the 1959 definition of the term ‘pheromones’ and also their epigenetic effects in mammals like the rabbit, on luteinizing hormone, which links them to nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled behavioral development in species from microbes to man. Our 1996 published work on molecular epigenetics and the organization and activation of mammalian behavior was extended to hormone-organized and hormone-activated behavior in insects by Elekonich and Robinson (2000).

        If you would simply take the time to read my most recent work, you would realize that your idea of how “The concept of “pheromone” and the usefulness of the term itself depends on its being reserved…” is a simple-minded and completely irrelevant approach to everything that is currently neuroscientifically known and exemplified across species via their conserved molecular mechanisms. Nevertheless, I get that a lot.

        Clearly, you have bought into academically irresponsible misrepresentations like those of Richard L. Doty, which will next lead you to incorporate a new definition of “mutation” into your biased view of what is obviously genetically predisposed and epigenetically caused by food odors and pheromones in all species. I expect to see the concept of ‘food odors’ incorporate a definition that makes it possible for them to cause ‘mutation’-driven adaptive evolution, since that will be required to promote the nonsense associated with the ‘concept’ of control of adaptive evolution by human pheromones, while ignoring the across species conservation of cause and effect that is nutrient-dependent and pheromone-controlled.

      3. Dr Kohl, you have a commercial stake in insisting that human chemical signals are “pheromones” because that implies that they can be put into a bottle and sold.

        If, on the other hand, human chemical signals are “signature mixtures” in the sense that Wyatt uses rather than pheromones then you have no prospect of being able to commercialise them.

        However, since you presume to read my mind, and have resorted to ad hominen attacks I see no point in taking this further.

      4. You mistake my motives and level of academic achievement. If human pheromones are ‘signature mixes’ our mammalian model of molecular epigenetics published in Hormones and Behavior in 1996 could not have been extended to invertebrate hormone-organized and hormone-activated behavior.

        Make no more mistakes, human pheromone-deniers are motivated to be academically irresponsible by the fact that they missed an opportunity to offer an accurate across-species representation of nutrient-dependent pheromone-controlled adaptive evolution. Having missed that opportunity, they play the game of definitions and ignore the biological facts that link nutrients and pheromones to genes and to behavior and back in species from microbes to man.

        When this becomes clear, as it has in this discussion, human pheromone-deniers, like you, can do nothing but run and hide. As Lewis Thomas indicated in 1971, their ‘Fear of Pheromones’ overwhelms them, and they can offer only more nonsense, like: “human chemical signals are “signature mixtures” — in the context of biologically based cause and effect — or end discussion. You exemplify terror with your ridiculous claim that human pheromones are “signature mixes” followed by END OF DISCUSSION.

  7. James V. Kohl: Genome sequencing has demonstrated that humans are genetically incapable of sensing pheromones. From:

    “In humans, the vomeronasal (pheromone receptor) organ develops in utero but subsequently regresses; all studies agree on its nonfunctional status.”

    “the organ regresses and the neural connections disappear. The vomeronasal cavities (…) lack sensory neurons and nerve fibers. The genes which code for vomeronasal receptor proteins (…) are mutated and nonfunctional in humans. In addition, no accessory olfactory bulbs, which receive information from the vomeronasal receptor cells, are found. The vomeronasal sensory function is thus nonoperational in humans.”

    So yes James V. Kohl, your “Scent of Eros” sex perfume is a scam.

    1. Whether or not humans have a functioning VNO (and the evidence that they do not is very convincing)is not relevant to whether they use chemical communication, or to whether their chemical signals are pheromones. The main olfactory system also detects chemical signals; for a recent review see M.J.Baum and A.J. Cherry 2014 Processing by the main olfactory system of chemosignals that facilitate mammalian reproduction. Hormones and Behaviour in press DOI: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2014.06.003.

      The redefinition of “pheromone” as something detected only by the VNO, and not consciously perceived was a quasi-mystical red herring.

      1. Our 1996 Hormones and Behavior review article links what was then known about the molecular epigenetics of biophyically-constrained nutrient-dependent thermodynamically-controlled cycles of protein biogenesis and degradation to the pheromone-controlled physiology of reproduction. Nothing that is currently known about the conserved molecular mechanisms has changed. Meanwhile, you cite a 2014 review that does not include information that is of much use to serious scientists.

        It’s as if you prefer to address theory but not biological facts. I get that a lot.

      2. James V Kohl

        If you wish to deal in facts perhaps you can cite one peer reviewed study that showed a pheromonal effect in humans, which was not carried out by someone with a vested interest in selling alleged pheromones, and which was reproducible.

        NB a pheromone is by definition a characterized chemical composition with a definite behavioural or developmental effect that can be robustly demonstrated at concentration which approximate those found naturally.

    2. Gender effects and sexual-orientation impact on androstadienone-evoked behavior and neural processing

      See for comparison, my award-winning review:
      The Mind’s Eyes: Human pheromones, neuroscience, and male sexual preferences

      If others would simply quit focusing on attempts to change the definition of pheromones, intelligent discussion could continue in the context of their epigenetic effects on hormones that affect behavior in all invertebrates and vertebrates via conserved molecular mechanisms.

  8. Peter Apps, you say “the olfactory system also detects chemical signals”. Obviously since scents are semiochemicals. They have nothing to do with the kind of chemicals found in pheromone perfumes.

    You confuse chemical types (odors and pheromones) and species (using mice models to claim human effect) and we end up with commercially self-serving, important-sounding, pseudoscientific word salad.

    Bottom line: Humans genetically have no pathways to detect or be affected by pheromones of the type found in sex perfume.

    So as regards human effect, again, the scientific evidence is quite clear: Pheromone perfumes are snake oil.

    So yes James V. Kohl, your “Scent of Eros” sex perfume is a scam. And I know that you know it.

    1. V Pierpont

      I agree with you completely, but whether or not humans have a VNO has nothing to do with whether or not humans communicate using chemicals (which we do)or whether or not bottled “pheromones” have any more effect than placebo (which they do not).

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