Smelling a Fish May Improve Critical Thinking Skills

New research shows that gross smells can foster a healthy sense of distrust

Volker Möhrke/Corbis

When you’re distrustful of something, you might say that it's "fishy.” Now, writes Popular Science’s Alexandra Ossola, that term may take on a new meaning — new research shows that the smell of fish not only makes people more suspicious, but may boost critical thinking skills.

Ossola reports that the new study used a common logical error, some math problems and the not-so-sweet smell of fish oil to achieve its results. In an attempt to discover how fishy smells influence the way humans process information, researchers conducted two tests: exposing people to incidental fishy smells, then seeing how well they identified semantic distortions and debunked their own false hunches.

First, researchers asked people a question that demonstrates what’s known as “The Moses Illusion,” a cognitive slip-up that occurs when people are asked a deceptively simple question. The illustion gets its name from the most common example of the trick:,when people familiar with the Bible are asked how many animals of each kind Moses took on the ark, they usually answer “two of each” — even though it was Noah, not Moses, who rescued animalkind in the Biblical tale.

When participants were exposed to the Moses question in a booth that had been sprayed with fish oil, they caught the error more frequently (41 percent of the time as opposed to only 16 percent in a booth that didn’t smell fishy). The results were similar when people were asked to test their own false mathematical hypothesis while under the influence of eau de fish.

What’s the point of uncovering people’s distrust while caught in fishy situations? To researchers, the tests illustrate not only that a skeptical mindset can help people make better decisions, but that smell could be used to improve or even impair decision-making. It’s your call whether to take a whiff of fish before you make your next big decision, but in this case at least, it might not hurt to follow your nose.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.