The Call of Pheromones - Part II - Mind And Muscle

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The Call of Pheromones – Part II
by: Ji-Yong David Chung

Part I of the current article has covered the basic research studies on pheromones. Part II will attempt to make some sense of two or three candidate pheromones that have been mentioned in Part I.

I. Psychology of Sexual Attraction, Androstadienone and Androstenol

Just prior to its conclusion, Part I cursorily discussed whether more than just a pair of pheromones might be involved in sexual attraction. The idea that one chemical agent per gender is responsible for attraction has some support. Spencer et al. were able to show, with some persuasiveness, that lactating women produce chemo-signals that increase sexual motivation in other women [1]. Spencer et al. has not yet identified the specific chemical compound that elicits the effect. As for attracting men, it is worthwhile noting ABC’s Night Line short demonstration described in Part I, while lacking in scientific rigor, does seem to open doors to the possibility that a perfume spiked with pheromone may actually work as advertised.

Unfortunately, the proposition that there exists one dominant pheromone pair (one pheromone per gender) seems to run counter to what has been observed in research studies, mostly with regard to attracting women. Each putative female attractant pheromone seems to affect only a limited aspect of a woman’s behavior.

For example, consider androstadienone and androstenol. Androstadienone has been shown to improve a woman’s general mood [2] and androstenol has been shown, perhaps not as conclusively, to increase a woman’s tendency to interact socially with men [3]. If the chemistry of sexual attraction involves states of mind, such as being relaxed or being open to men’s advances, then androstadienone and androstenol both may help in setting the stage for physical attraction.

One might argue that sexual attraction should be a simple matter of biology and that it should not be difficult to induce. However, such does not seem to be the case. For example, consider drugs that help sexual performance. Scientists have formulated Viagra for men; however, they have not yet been able to formulate a similar drug for women. For men, administration of Viagra results in an immediate effect. In women, many drugs that have been tested fail to produce consistent results. What is evident from the research on sexual performance drugs is that a woman’s arousal depends much more on a complex blend of emotional states [5], [6].

The above observations naturally lead to the following questions: (1) what emotions need to be induced in a woman to set the stage for physical attraction, and (2) whether pheromones can have any role in triggering the right combination of emotions. With respect to the first question, there is no landmark study that has systematically analyzed the emotional prerequisites for sexual attraction. Generally, Freudian theories, which occupy a significant part of today’s psychology, view the sexual drive as the basic psychic energy that prompts an individual to act sexually. The theories do not dissect sexual drive or analyze it in its sub-constituent form. Where there is sexual drive, a Freudian would presume, there is sexual “act.” Unfortunately, it is fairly obvious that the presence of sexual drive in women and men does not translate to sexual attraction; in that regard, Freudian psychology does not provide the framework in which one can analyze physical attraction.

With no authorities to cite and no studies to review, answering the question “what emotional states are required for producing sexual attraction” feeds the fire of speculation. Still, it might be worthwhile to consider different answers to the question, because it provides a possible rationale for concocting a pheromone cocktail.

To start feeding the fire of speculation, one can suggest three emotions as possible prerequisites for physical attraction. They are: (1) feeling safe (2) feeling “submissive” or “dominant” and (3) feeling lust (“sexual drive”). That is, to increase the odds that a typical heterosexual woman feels attracted to a man, all three of the emotions must be present at the same time. The terms “safety” or “lust” are self-explanatory. “Submissive or dominance” requires additional explanation.

The submissive or dominant state refers to a role that one gender of mammal specie apparently assumes during mating. For example, consider canines. Even when neutered, male canines will attempt to hump an object that they consider as an intrusion into their own territory. Many veterinarians and trainers commonly refer to such attempts as “dominance” behavior [7]. Another example of dominant/submissive behavior can be observed among African elephants. When the alpha male elephant in musth approaches a female, she will initially post a ritual resistance by running away. She will eventually allow him to overtake her and surrender. The male will “dominate” her and claim her as his prize [8], [9].

The above examples by themselves do not provide proof that “submission” or “domination” by males is required for the establishment of attraction among humans. However, one might be well advised to remember that people do betray dominance/submissive behavior in sexual context. For example, consider sexual fantasy literature that features role-playing games such as “S and M.” The rhetorical question is: why would the games of dominance and submission be relatively wide spread among people, unless the roles were somehow known through their instinct? Furthermore, is it a pure coincidence that many mammalian species exhibit analogous behavior? [10], [11].

If the above-mentioned three emotional states do facilitate physical attraction, then the next question has to address whether the alleged pheromones might provide help in eliciting the three emotional states.

First, consider androstadienone. Spencer et al. [1] showed that in the presence of the chemical, women’s moods did not worsen. The subjects were able to focus on their daily activity without problems. This is in contrast to the control group, which experienced mood deterioration. While not conclusive, it seems that androstadienone affects the sense of security (“safety”).

Second, consider androstenol. In Benton’s experiment, androstenol caused females to feel “submissive” [12]. Third, consider androstenone. With Fislinger, androstenone was supposed to have increased, in the minds of women who were exposed to androstenone, the level of attractiveness of male photographs. Thus, perhaps androstenone affects the level of sexual drive.

In view of the preceding, it is possible that a high concentration mixture consisting of androstadienone, andrdostenone, and androstenol could concurrently elicit the three emotional states that facilitate physical attraction. Note that to concoct a proper blend of pheromones, one would need to consider the inverted U curve effect, the ideal concentration ratios of various pheromones, the effective distance under which the pheromone mixture could exert its effects, and the side effects from applying them (such as offending other men).

III. Social Context

One aspect of pheromones that has not been discussed is the social context in which attractions can occur. For instance, consider Romeo and Juliet. If Juliet were an older woman who fully appreciated her social standing, she might not have considered Romeo her potential lover. Romeo’s status as the member of Montague may have removed him from the set of all her potential mates.

The support for the above view is based on some evidence that also supports the following proposition: mating does not affect only the parties that are about to engage in sexual activities but also affects people around the couple. For example consider coral-dwelling fish, gobiodon erythrospilus. During its development, exposure to fish of one gender will cause a young fish to develop into the gender opposite that of its adult partners. The resulting group of fish is more likely to have an equal number of males and females, and therefore, it has greater reproductive capacity [14]. In addition, the presence of adult fish also speeds up the developmental rate and size of the young.

The study above teaches that mating is governed partially by the reproductive needs of the group to which the young fish belongs. Furthermore, it illustrates a mechanism for alerting young members in the group about the group’s reproductive capacity. When the reproductive capacity decreases due to the imbalance in the number of male and female fish, young fish compensate by evolving into the gender to which fewer number of fish belong.

The study leads one to wonder if the preceding concept is applicable to humans in some way. It also leads one to wonder whether people’s mating activity itself could be viewed in the context of society. Furthermore, it leads one to ask how a pheromone would affect group behavior.

Unfortunately, no one knows the extent to which pheromones might be involved. However, there is one example which is related to women’s menstruation. It has been shown that when women are in close proximity to each other for extended duration, their menstrual cycles will synchronize [15], [16]. Some have explained this phenomenon as follows: when all women menstruate at the same time, they also emit pheromones which signal the mating readiness of the group as a whole. The synchronization is desirable, because the concurrence of the pheromone emission by many would amplify the mating signal and therefore draw an increased number of male suitors. This is analogous to the way in which male crickets will synchronize their mating songs to attract female crickets.

Another way in which pheromones could govern social behavior is by feedback. To explain the idea, consider the study by Gustavson et al. The study described an avoidance behavior; it showed that men were biased against using bathroom stalls which were sprayed with androstenol. If androstenol indeed elicits the same effects under normal, real world situations, then androstenol would also affect how men would behave with respect to territory. One can easily see that such behavior would lead to changes in a male’s mating pattern, which in turn, could lead to different ovulation cycles for females that are in his proximity. The women’s pheromones would eventually affect the man’s mood, his plasma testosterone concentration, and finally, his own production of androstenol.

III. Do Publicly Marketed Pheromones Work?

Having covered many of the issues related to pheromones, it is perhaps time to visit one important question for those who are interested in the practical aspects of pheromones: do pheromone products work? Unfortunately, no one really knows; feedback that is posted in various Internet pheromone forums is unreliable and not trustworthy. Furthermore, much of the feedback indicates that many pheromone products may not contain the active ingredients.

The discussion on concocting a pheromone cocktail for attracting women, while it has attempted to provide a rationale for making an attractant mixture, is not much more than a hypothesis. It speaks of possibilities but not probabilities.

Those who want to experiment with pheromone products must assume significant risk. There is simply insufficient evidence that perfumes spiked with a pheromone blend will actually attract members of the opposite sex.


Mostly, Part II has covered the reasons why trying to use a pheromone mixture, rather than a single pheromone pair, might be viable. Next, it considered the role of pheromone in the context of society. Finally, it briefly noted that pheromones could be modulated by external circumstances, or feedback.

It is unfortunate that not much concrete evidence can be presented in support of the use of pheromones to attract men or women. Currently, there are not enough studies that support the practical use of pheromones.

Does that mean sexual attractant pheromones do not exist?

A few years ago, one of the Washington Post reporters interviewed Jake LaMotta, a middleweight champion boxer during the late 1940’s. He was also the subject of Martin Scorcese’s film “Raging Bull.” During the interview, the reporter noticed that women who passed by Jake would hit on him. After the interview, the reporter asked one of the women whether Jake LaMotta was sexy. She answered that she could not put her finger on it, but there was something about Jake that drew women in.

Was it his appearance? Was it his voice? No one can know for sure, but if Jake did possess an indefinable animal magnetism, it would not be surprising to find that his charm was the call of pheromones.

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The Institute for Mind and Biology, The University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
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