Posted by: Ed Darrell | March 31, 2008

Psychology as magic: Beware! (pheromones)

Psychology is the study of human and animal behavior. Inevitably someone will want to guide human behavior in a specific direction, for less-than-noble reasons — and they will ask for help from psychologists and other scientists.

Case in point: Bug Girl* is an entomologist, a scientist who studies insects. She uses the name for her weblog.

Insect behavior, we know from research, is heavily influenced by phermones — scent chemicals emitted by other insects. For some insects, this is the sole way they find a mate. For other insects, like ants, pheromones are used as important means of communication to forage for food, defend the colony, and so on.

So, Bug Girl got a letter from a company selling a chemical they claim is a human pheromone, and they asked her evaluation. Here is her account, with the response. The post shows how scientists think, and how they limit their conclusions to what they really know. And, her post offers several links to good sources about the effects of human pheromones.

Now, there are a few human chemicals that do seem to meet the definition of a pheromone. You can read a nice introduction to what is known about human pheromones in this APA article. The pioneer in human pheromone research is Martha McClintock, who first isolated and showed that a pheromone was responsible for synchronizing women’s menstrual cycles.

This is probably not the compound for sale at the commercial website. At least, I hope not–I really don’t think a guy dousing himself in that compound will get the response he wants.

There are some other compounds that do seem to induce changes in human physiology. The compounds that have been studied most are steroid musks (androstenol and related compounds) produced by glands in men’s underarms. Yummy!

For your information, enrichment, and enjoyment — and warning, against getting ripped off by people preying on your human insecurities.


* Don’t you just love internet handles? She’s a reputable scientist in my experience, despite the pseudonym.


  1. It is a change in both physiology and in behavior that defines a pheromone, but the original definition was used to define the plural: pheromones. Individual insect pheromones have been found, but consistently in mixtures of other chemical signals used for self / non-self recognition (e.g., immune system recognition) and for reproductive fitness (e.g, sex hormone-associated mate value).

    Human pheromones (e.g., a mixture of chemicals) have not yet been described in peer-reviewed publications. However, they soon will be as more people begin examining the potential for mixtures of chemicals to influence hormones and thereby affect behavior.

  2. And I’m sure your connection to a commercial pheromone site has no bearing on your opinion, James…..

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