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It's clear that we have certain ideas of what smells mean, in general...

For example:

  • Flowery means girls and/or happiness
  • Coppery means blood. (Or pennies!)
  • Stink means run away and/or admonish the smelly person in fault and/or decay.

In my universe, which I am starting far away from this one, I have a planet of humans. Regular humans. On a planet identical to earth. (So no "magic" answers.)

I want these people to associate the smell of lavender with violent, dirty, or otherwise 'wrong.' Whenever there is a crime or if for some reason someone wants to advertise a crime, they dump lavender oil in the area, and people know that something is bad. This has a multitude of purposes.

Question: How do you make (however you please, within the bounds,) a smell associated with wrong?

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didn't you answer yourself already? and you mean how do you make someone associate a smell and "wrong' ? – Erik vanDoren Feb 18 at 21:12
No, neither of those things, but rather I am asking how we would get them to that spot, and yes, not and but with, because lavender is not necessarily bad in and of itself. – Caleb Woodman Feb 18 at 21:18
then you mean how do you get to the point of a smell associated with wrong... doesn’t take much, one bad experience in ER and its done, bad stuff hits very very fast. You said it serves a moltitude of purposes so one of those can be what started it. I still think you answered yourself in the question – Erik vanDoren Feb 18 at 21:21
In the Hunger Games Katniss associates roses with blood and death... I wonder why? – XandarTheZenon Feb 18 at 23:30
Are you asking, "why might a society associate lavender with badness", or are you asking, "supposing someone in authority in society wanted lavender to be associated with badness, how might they go about it"? I ask because people already associate things like police tape with badness -- this isn't because of any kind of deep racial memory of the colour yellow, or cunning plan on the part of a social manipulator, it's because they see it at crime scenes (especially on TV). So you get a moderate effect "just because it's what we do". – Steve Jessop Feb 19 at 1:58

10 Answers 10

up vote 9 down vote accepted

With Classical Conditioning

The relationships you've described are not necessarily inherent in humans. Some people have had bad experiences related to flowery smells and this makes them perceive them negatively.

So all you need to do to have the general consensus for particular smells as bad ones is associate them with bad things. This means exactly what you've described, consistently spreading a scent around a bad event. Or a predator that emits a scent of something we'd consider nice on Earth, but would now be associated with danger there. There are lots of ways to achieve it. Perhaps a specific bacteria makes a flowery odor when it decomposes a corpse, cockroaches smell like licorice when they're crushed, their blood smells like quarters, etc.


I previously said operant conditioning, which is technically incorrect. You want to associate the smell with the natural bad feelings that arise from bad situations. Not make situations feel bad by invoking bad feelings.

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So, in a tautological sense, if people always smell that in bad situations, they will always smell it and think of bad situations. – Caleb Woodman Feb 18 at 21:21
@CalebWoodman That's the general idea, yes. – Samuel Feb 18 at 21:23
@CalebWoodman its actually much more effective than you think. Smell is hardwired deep in the Lizard part of the brain. There are hundreds of papers on the link between memory and smell. So really, a single traumatic experience could like a smell to an unpleasant memory. – Aron Feb 19 at 8:52

Simple Pavlovian Training should do it

Put all your humans through a training course where the worst, most dangerous, most violent part of the course is absolutely drowning in lavender oil. Repeat the training course for a month....though you may not need to do it for that long. Maybe a day or week would be enough depending on the person. It won't take long for your unlucky humans to associate great stress or physical assault with lavender. A training course may be overkill. As stated in the OP, advertising a crime by having police place lavender around a crime scene that people walk by should do it. Cultural knowledge compounded with repeated exposure should cement the association pretty tightly.

The correlation between smell and memory is very strong in humans. It's common for the cologne or perfume of a past lover to trigger intense emotional reactions based on just a whiff of perfume/cologne from a passerby. You, Author, won't have to work very hard to make an association between lavender and "bad stuff happened here"(TM).

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You beat me by 14 seconds and were more correct in saying Pavlovian conditioning. +1 – Samuel Feb 18 at 21:32

It could come by the association naturally - by who uses the Lavender. Lets say the most aggressive or notoriously harsh culture on this world likes to use Lavender for a variety of purposes.

It could have a number of useful purposes for a country or group that may have an abundance of it.

  • Cleaning solution treatment for wood - I'm thinking, treating wood for boats on this
  • Use in tribal markings (Things like henna come to mind)
  • Keep away moths in clothing
  • Personal grooming habits

Now, link this group with a horrendous attack or war, maybe one by sea that caused barrels of their lavender to spill into the water, maybe so bad that the smell of lavender would be linked with danger and death by the survivors.

Also, how the association could be linked with criminals, or escaped prisoners: this group could force it's prisoners to work lavender extraction vats, and the factories for treating cloths and other goods. Causing anyone that has escaped from there to be drenched in the smell.

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Some believe that the origin of the ancient nursery rhyme, Ring Around The Rosie, involved the covering of plague victims with fragrant flowers to hide the scent of death. Prior to germ theory, they may have correlated the increased infection risk that comes from proximity to the dead, with the horrible smell that comes from the dead. In covering up that smell, they may have been pursuing some form of olfactory antiseptic.

If any of this speculation is true, I can imagine that the smell of roses was pretty distasteful to survivors in the years after the plague.

In your case, lavender might have been used heavily, yet unsuccessfully, as treatment for a recent plague.

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It's easy on an individual or a small group. Positive reinforcement. However, it would be very difficult to make that happen to a very large culture or society, unless the smell of lavender is also associated with something 'common' but awful.

Such as a fungus that causes violent insanity and also causes the afflicted to smell like lavender. This would creep into a culture to avoid the smell and have bad associations.

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It's positive reinforcement if you're adding something, like a scent, when a condition occurs. The positive/negative does not have to do with the perception of the reinforcement. – Samuel Feb 18 at 21:19
Yes, you are correct again. Thanks! – bowlturner Feb 18 at 21:21
Remember, if it smells like mushroom man, it's baaaaad! -TV courtesy reminder – Caleb Woodman Feb 18 at 21:29


In districts where and when marijuana was illegal, one way of preventing people from growing it illegally was to hand out little scratch-and-sniff cards to indicate:

If you smell this, someone is growing weed and must be reported!

That is how a lot of people even know what the smell is, without psychological association. I imagine giving these out to people, eventually children included, would mean mass-knowledge of a the distinctive smell, and thus, a way of associating said smell with crime scenes.

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Let's say that in ancient times, superstitious people thought that lavender oil would placate the spirits where violent acts occurred (lavender is after all a mood leveller,) so it was spread in the area. You have your association. You can add a war if you want to increase the drama.

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I like your answer and think that it should be taken seriously, but I don't really agree with it. Because people in ancient times and people in modern times are different people, modern people don't have the same feelings as them per se. – Caleb Woodman Feb 18 at 21:31
no edit, you wanted to figure how it started and there you have it, the use could have remained for habit or whatever, in your question you indicated other purposes but you dont specify which purposes they are. Superstition is forever. Remember that we still bring flowers to graves and thats an use that started a long time ago. In some places some flowers are associated with death, I associate chrysanthemum with cemeteries because thats what we use where im from. theres a particular yellow little flower that is said to grow on graves, been told that comes from WWI... etc etc – Erik vanDoren Feb 18 at 21:37
Modern people dont have the same feelings but get their habits from old people. Once an association is set it spreads. you dont need to continue that tradition per se. You are the one that said they still do it but you dont tell us the reasons, can be superstition or habit or religion or whatever, you mention other purposes but you have yet to tell us what they are, makes sense? – Erik vanDoren Feb 18 at 21:43
yes, okay, that does make sense. Thanks for clarifying. – Caleb Woodman Feb 18 at 21:46

This planet is host to a particularly nasty parasite, which causes something like Walking Dead zombieism, but with a much longer preliminary phase and slower decline. During the early stages of the infection, the sufferer's sweat smells (faintly at first, but more strongly as the infection progresses) of lavender. The infection is not terribly common - let's say somewhat more common than leprosy. But it is widespread, both geographically and socioeconomically. The association of the smell with a grotesque disease will ensure its widespread loathing.

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Why does it need to be Lavender, specifically? What's in a name? What we call Lavender is just the smell of a particular flower. So is it also the smell of a flower in your world? What happens if you call it something else? Or it comes from another source? Just something to think about.

To answer the question, you could add a natural predator that uses the scent. For instance, imagine if lions naturally smelled of Lavender - or maybe they roll in the stuff to hide their scent from prey. The humans will pretty quickly learn that when you smell it, run away. They could even have an evolved, instinctive fear of the smell.

Or maybe the flower happens to be an incredibly deadly poison, but is otherwise small, unnoticeable, and grows everywhere. Maybe even as a parasite on other edible plants. In that case, being able to detect that the salad you just made has a hint of Lavender is a vital survival tool, and anyone who doesn't react with horror to the scent will pretty quickly end up poisoning themselves. Again, evolutionary pressure.

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We think certain smells are bad because they are associated with things that are bad, e.g. rotten meat smells bad to stop you from eating it, etc. Your considering a smell to be bad is your nose's way of warning you to keep away from the source because it will make you sick.

So your planet and people can be identical to Earth except with the following difference: Lavender, or something that smells very like lavender is poisonous to the people who live there, but also grows common enough in the wild to be sampled by the general population. They will have evolved to retract in disgust from the smell.

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