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The Misconstrued Aspects of Communication and Pheromone Science

Two kids talking using a makeshift phone. / Photo by: stylephotographs via 123RF

 

Communication is a fundamental facet of being an animal on Planet Earth. All animals are communicating with each other all the time, and people study the various arts and sciences of communication constantly. In truth, though, there’s ample evidence to suggest that, though we may be adept at learning how to master communication and execute its processes more effectively, we don’t necessarily know how or why it works as efficiently or inefficiently as it does — not between human beings and not between animals of other species. Truth be told, people ascribe a lot positive or effective communications to speech, and since that’s done for humans, it is also how it’s conceptualized for other animals as well. How much does speech even have to do with it, though, is a very complex question, and the waters are further muddied by the science of pheromones.

Go online, and it’s easy to find all kinds of so-called pheromone products offered by online vendors, and these things are available in stores as well. Usually, these are things like perfumes and colognes intended to use esoteric, chemical additives to attract the sex of your choosing. There are whole private companies making boat-loads of money off of this pheromone market like the Athena Institute for example. Founder Winnifred Cutler put the company’s 108th advert in The Atlantic earlier this month, claiming as most similar ads do that scientific evidence supports the idea that pheromones can have very potent effects in this regard.

 
 
Bees flocked in one place due to a pheromone. / Photo by: Victor Kuznetsov via 123RF

 

Granted, there’s a lot of research out there on this topic, but it’s not all as supportive as those advertisements might have you believe. Experiments have been conducted in large numbers to determine whether or not the compounds found in products like those produced by the Athena Institute — substances extracted from the armpits of other human beings — actually do what an entire industry says they do. Sex-related behavior research, though, has been finding for over a decade that, at the very least, there’s considerable incredulity and reason for said incredulity. George Preti, for example, is a Monell Chemical Senses chemist at their facility in Philadelphia, and he conducted several of the early human trials for these things. He suggests there’s ample reason to be skeptical.

“I am not compelled by the studies that are out there that say there is an active steroid component from the underarm that causes [sexual attraction],” Preti says outright. The significance of this statement, mind you, is that, even if these companies are right about pheromones in general genuinely being capable of persuading others to fall in like with someone they otherwise wouldn’t, so to speak, scientific evidence doesn’t specifically attribute any such thing to the compounds that companies are extracting from armpits and marketing to the public. The whole of the scientific community views pheromones as little more than chemical signals released by an animal to evoke certain responses from other individuals of their own species. Even though that’s what these products are meant to achieve, researchers at large seem more inclined to interpret their frequent findings as indications that there are many other influences at work in this process besides just sexual attraction in the first place.

Pheromones apparently evoke so many different responses like changes to parental behavior or surges in aggression, and there’s no indication that companies are even controlling for these possible outcomes. Beyond this and perhaps more importantly, though, pheromones are only so clearly defined when it comes to other kinds of animals altogether. The effects on human beings and, for that matter, the very existence of human pheromones, has always been debatable from the beginning and remains so. “I still have an open mind about whether human pheromones exist,” Ron Yu says as an analyst at the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. He’s a student of rodent pheromones and has reason to doubt that human pheromones are even a thing. “But I just don’t find any of the published studies convincing enough.”

Oxford University’s zoologist, Tristram Wyatt, adds, “The problem with [pheromone] companies is not specific to them. It’s a much more general question about claims made without good evidence.” That problem persists because scientific evidence has remained inconclusive but also because government watchdogs in many countries don’t currently cover all their bases when it comes to verifying the validity of product and patent claims in this market. Truth be told, there’s no telling how many facets of communication that people commonly attribute to pheromones are just as misconstrued as aspects ascribed to speech.

 

Think about body language and all the many ways we communicate various things without really realizing it. There are nuanced, unspoken communications that greatly influence how we interact with each other, perhaps more so than speech does. A recent study, for example, drew a correlation between strong handshakes from men and the status of marriage. Scientists at Columbia University worked with others from the Columbia Aging Center and determined that a stronger grip in a handshake more often correlates with married men than weaker grips do. Now, this is exactly the kind of correlation that merits further study and, more importantly, reproducible findings in follow-up studies, but it’s also the kind of thing that, if true, would represent an incredibly affective, entre nous communiqué with no words being necessary. Think about how often one’s marital status seems to be worn on their sleeve, and you can’t always pin down how you know someone’s married or not; some would say it’s more of a feeling. This study would say it’s more of a handshake.

“Our results hint that women may be favoring partners who signal strength and vigor when they marry,” Vegard Skirbekk says as one of the professors who penned the published article. “If longer-lived women marry healthier men, then both may avoid or defer the role of caregiver, while less healthy men remain unmarried and must look elsewhere for assistance.”

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