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Research suggests that the aroma of coffee – which has no caffeine in it – can help people perform analytical tasks.

Research at Stevens Institute of Technology suggests that the aroma of coffee helped students undertaking a Graduate Management Aptitude Test, or GMAT, a computer adaptive test required by many business schools.

The work, led by Stevens School of Business professor Adriana Madzharov, not only highlights the hidden force of the aroma of coffee, and the cognitive boost it may provide on analytical tasks, but also the expectation that students will perform their tasks better.

Madzharov, with colleagues at Temple University and Baruch College, recently published their findings in Journal of Environmental Psychology.

“It’s not just that the coffee-like aroma helped people perform better on analytical tasks, which was already interesting,” said Madzharov. “They also thought they would do better and we demonstrated that this expectation was at least partly responsible for their improved performance.”

In short, smelling a coffee-like aroma, which has no caffeine in it, has an effect similar to that of drinking coffee, suggesting a placebo effect of coffee scent.

In their work, Madzharov and her team administered a 10-question GMAT algebra test in a computer lab to about 100 undergraduate business students, divided into two groups. One group took the test in the presence of an ambient coffee-like aroma, while a control group took the same test — but in an unscented room. They found that the group in the coffee-smelling room scored significantly higher on the test.

Madzharov and colleagues wanted to know more. Could the first group’s boost in quick thinking be explained, in part, by an expectation that a coffee scent would increase alertness and subsequently improve performance?

The team designed a follow-up survey, conducted among more than 200 new participants, quizzing them on beliefs about various scents and their perceived effects on human performance.

Participants believed they would feel more alert and energetic in the presence of the aroma of coffee, compared to the scent of a flower or no scent; and that exposure to the aroma of coffee would enhance their performance of mental tasks.

The results suggest that expectations about performance can be explained by the belief that coffee’s aroma alone makes people more alert and energetic.

Madzharov, whose research focuses on sensory marketing and aesthetics, is looking to explore whether coffee-like aromas can have a similar placebo effect on other types of performance, such as verbal reasoning. She also says that the finding – that coffee-like aroma acts as a placebo for analytical reasoning performance – has many practical applications, including several for business.

“Olfaction is one of our most powerful senses,” said Madzharov. “Employers and others could use subtle aromas to help shape individuals’ experience of their environment. It’s an area of great interest and potential.”

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