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Study shows we expect the smell of coffee to make us more alert, and it does

Tim Nelson
July 18, 2018

Coffee: a socially acceptable drug addiction, or something more worthwhile? There’s no doubt that the alertness a jolt of caffeine from our favorite bean water can be beneficial, but studies show that coffee also positively impacts heart health and might even keep you alive longer. Coffee’s so powerful, in fact, that new evidence suggests that just catching a whiff of it is enough to supercharge your brain.

That’s right: a new study from Stevens Institute of Technology determined that the smell of coffee can be enough boost analytical reasoning skills. Testing the hypothesis involved quizzing undergraduate business students on 10 algebra questions from the Graduate Management Aptitude Test (GMAT), a component of the MBA program admissions process. Divided into two groups, one set of students were quizzed “in the presence of an ambient, coffee-like scent”, while the others had to deal with whatever a computer lab in Hoboken, New Jersey smells like. After the numbers were crunched, the coffee smellers ended up scoring higher, even though they hadn’t ingested any caffeine.

Those interesting findings prompted a follow-up survey, in which a new group of students who did not take the quiz were asked about how they felt certain scents might impact cognitive performance in certain arenas. This new group that hadn’t been exposed to the coffee scent nonetheless believed it would make them feel more alert and energetic, making them better at mental tasks

As such, the presence of coffee seems like it’s enough to trigger a placebo effect that leads to a legitimate brain boost. “It's not just that the coffee-like scent helped people perform better on analytical tasks, which was already interesting," says Stevens School of Business professor Adriana Madzharov, who administered the study. "They also thought they would do better, and we demonstrated that this expectation was at least partly responsible for their improved performance.”

Inspired by those findings, Madzharov hopes to test the relationship between coffee’s olfactory qualities and other tasks like verbal reasoning and explore the possibility for scents to subtly shift how we move through the world. “Employers, architects, building developers, retail space managers and others, can use subtle scents to help shape employees’ or occupants’ experience with their environment. It’s an area of great interest and potential.”


If you’re the kind of go-getter who’s studying for the GMAT, you likely already rely on coffee to supercharge your productivity. But if you really want to get into the business school of your dreams, bring a cup with you to the exam. It just might give you the competitive edge you need.  

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