For many coffee enthusiasts, few things in life are better than popping open a bag of good coffee and taking a big whiff of the beans. The smell of coffee makes them feel like they can conquer the day and anything it brings.
It turns out that electric feeling is real.
According to a study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology in 2018, regular coffee drinkers don’t even have to drink the beverage to feel its stimulating effects. Researchers looked at how the smell of coffee could affect people who are already accustomed to the influence of the world’s most popular bean. They concluded that the smell of coffee makes those people more alert and improves their analytical reasoning.
A lot of research has gone into the study of caffeine and its effect on human performance. Studies are usually centered around athletics, physiology, or general health. Previous studies have looked at caffeine’s effect on human brains, muscles, and taste buds. But because caffeine is odorless, studying the human olfactory response to the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive substance is essentially impossible.
Enter the next-best thing: coffee.
Of all the caffeinated beverages in the world, researchers chose coffee — with its strong aroma — as the stimulant of choice for their research on olfactory response. The findings suggest that smelling coffee gives regular drinkers a cognitive boost because they expect their morning joe to stimulate them and increase productivity.
The effect only occurs if the person experiencing the sweet, earthy odor of coffee has an existing relationship with the drink and feels the energizing effects of caffeine when they consume it. For those who don’t know anything about coffee or don’t feel a boost after drinking it (which both seem impossible to me), the smell of beans, grinds, or a fresh brew won’t have the same effect.
The science behind the empowering smell is expectancy theory, which says that people learn to internalize their relationship with things through repeated exposure over time. The more someone experiences the result of consuming something (in this case, coffee) the more they will come to expect a certain result.
Anyone familiar with classical or “Pavlovian” conditioning will likely recognize the behavioral pattern, which Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov is credited with discovering. While researching salivation in dogs in response to being fed, Pavlov discovered that any stimulus the dogs learned to associate with food, such as a lab assistant’s footsteps or a bell rung near feeding time, would cause the dogs to salivate.
The study’s findings also track with what we know about the placebo effect. Coffee drinkers don’t have to actually ingest coffee to feel the effects they associate with it; their brains and bodies just have to expect the outcome. That means environments in which the aroma of coffee is strong can have a similar effect to actually consuming coffee, even if there’s no expectation of doing so.
Coffee shops provide a great example of the environmental effect of coffeelike scent on productivity. There’s a reason so many people go to do important work over a cup of coffee, and it’s not just free Wi-Fi or a lack of interest in making squatters buy more coffee. Anyone can go into most fast food joints these days and find equally free internet access along with the requisite antipathy toward customers.
We choose coffee shops because the smell helps us crank out page after page of copy, spreadsheets, and TPS reports, whether we realize it or not. That’s why we don’t see many aspiring screenwriters hanging out at their local chicken shack. While no one has studied the relationship between the smell of fried chicken and analytical reasoning, it’s probably safe to say there isn’t one.
So why would anyone think about studying coffee smells and their effects on human productivity? It might sound like a bunch of useless research, but it could actually have a practical application. (To see what useless research looks like, check out this study on the effects of electric fans in extreme heat.) Employers looking to get the most out of their workforce might consider adding a barista to the payroll.
The researchers behind the study titled “The Impact of Coffee-like Scent on Expectations and Performance” hypothesized that employers might be able to create more productive work environments by introducing pleasant ambient odors or removing odors that were detrimental to worker productivity (that last part seems pretty intuitive to me, but grant money is grant money, I guess).
Modern workplaces are always looking for innovations to increase efficiency, and scientists have already studied coffee shop background noise as a force multiplier.
Most importantly for coffee drinkers, however, is that scientists were looking to find ways people who could no longer consume caffeine might still benefit from coffee. Imagine not being able to imbibe your favorite morning beverage to start your day. Then thank science for discovering that you can snort coffee’s scent like Tony Montana in that pile of cocaine at the end of Scarface and then get after your day like, “Say hello to my little friend!”