Intercultural research of intersexual differences in children’s olfactory perception

There are countless studies conducted across many cultures and across all ages showing, that girls and women outperform boys and men in olfactory abilities, especially in the ability to identify odours. Recently, the possible interpretation of these intersexual differences, which has not yet been the subject of more thorough empirical research, could be that, women have become more involved in the long-term than men in the context of day-to-day activities and have a more extensive experience with different scents and smells (such as the use of cosmetic products, preparation of meals, child care). The fact that participation in gender specific activities is encouraged by the child’s surroundings all the way from the earliest age, is evident from the testimonies of two year old girls (but not the boys of the same age). One of the objectives of this study was to find out whether interpersonal differences in the ability to identify odours and in odour awareness could be related to the assumed difference in participation of girls and boys in similar activities. Another objective was to verify the intercultural validity of the intersexual differences in olfaction and odour awareness in a sample of third world children, as the vast majority of olfaction research comes from the countries we call WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic).

In Namibia, 101 children participated, of which 50 were boys aged 10-15 (12.3 ± 1.4) years and 51 were girls aged 9-15 (11.9 ± 1.5) years, attending schools in the city of Keetmanshoop in southern Namibia. A structured interview (in English and local languages, Afrikaans and Nama) was conducted on the basis of the COBEL questionnaire adapted to the given cultural conditions, and basic demographic data (number of siblings, a language spoken at home as an indicator of ethnicity) were also collected. The children also answered three questions about the odours in their surroundings (number of pets, number of cooking aids, number of siblings). Finally, a odour identification test was conducted, which consisted of a forced choice of 4 alternatives for each of the 12 local culturally specific smells, with the children always being presented with 4 labeled images and being asked to point out which one corresponds to the source of the odour presented. The study also included 92 Czech children, of which 36 were boys aged 8-11 (9 ± 0.8) years and 56 were girls aged 8-11 (9 ± 0.7) years attending 3rd and 4th grade of two primary schools in Prague. The children underwent an odour identification test using the Sniffin’ Sticks  olfactory pens and then a structured interview was conducted based on the COBEL questionnaire.

Overall results confirm the intercultural validity of intersexual differences in odour awareness  in favor for girls. A link was also found in the Czech sample between the overall score of odour identification and odour awareness, probably referring to the influence of olfactory experience on both variables. The absence of a link between Namibian chilren’s responses about potentially rich activities in olfactory stimuli and odour identification or odour awareness could be explained by, among other things, the low number of questions related to olfaction. The results of a similar study on adults where such a relationship was found with the help of a detailed questionnaire specifically designed for the purpose of the research, suggest this as well.