Humans tend to disregard the role that the sense of smell plays in their lives, despite the fact that most other mammals depend on their noses far more than their eyes and ears. But while our vision and hearing play a large role in our conscious thought and judgments, psychological research shows that smells impact unconscious judgments and the formation of memories more than any of our other senses. Unfortunately, this stacks the deck against victims of halitosis when it comes to first impressions and lasting memories.
Memories are typically not as reliable as we give them credit for. Study after study has shown that subjects are often unable to accurately recall whether the person they just passed by them in the hallway had facial hair or a baseball cap. In light of this research, courts are even beginning to question the weight they give to eyewitness testimony and lineups.
Smell is a different story, however. The memories created by your sense of smell are far more vivid and easy to recall than those formed by vision. This is why you may not remember what color your grandfather’s favorite shirt was, but you will never forget whether or not your grandmother put cinnamon in your apple sauce. We cannot count on time to wipe away the memory of bad breath once it has made an impression. Only getting rid of bad breath will correct the damage done.
In addition to being more vivid, research shows that memories associated with a particular smell tend to be more emotional than those associated with sounds or images. A whiff of a turkey roasting in the oven will bring back heartwarming recollections of a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal far better than a photo of someone carving a bird will. Similarly, unpleasant memories associated with smells can be recalled more quickly than others, and they carry far more emotional weight.
A Negative Bias
It turns out that our noses are pessimists; malodorous memories are easier to remember and are retained longer than other memories related to smell. This is probably because the survival of our ancestors depended more on scents that signaled spoiled food and unsanitary conditions than other aromas. Unfortunately for those that suffer from halitosis, they are exhaling the same decaying-food odor that centuries of conditioning have prepared mankind to quickly identify, remember, and avoid.
Every time someone notices your bad breath, it creates ripples in their memory that last far longer than just one brief, uncomfortable encounter. Trying to overshadow those impressions by improving your appearance and your behavior will only go so far, battling against the most vivid, emotional, negatively-weighted biases that our brains can form. The best solution is to seek a halitosis professional that can help you overcome your halitosis and take away the handicap from your future first impressions.
About the author: Dr. Anthony Dailley is a practicing dentist that specializes in halitosis treatment. He has been practicing since 1981 and graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in Cell & Molecular Biology, and obtained his dental degree from the Pacific School of Dentistry. Dr. Dailley founded the Center for Breath Treatment in the San Francisco Bay Area and conducts research on curing halitosis. Dr. Dailley has also been a founder in a biotech company called NovaBay Pharmaceuticals and on their board of directors from 1997 -2014.