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Science Festival. Day 3. Smelling something fishy!

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David Gregory | 15:37 UK time, Thursday, 16 September 2010

Don't forget you can take part in our online experiments by clicking here and find the full programme for the British Science Festival here.


Last night Jon Wood from Aston University unveiled "the world's greatest smell" to an audience at The Old Rep Theatre in Birmingham.

You can read my full report here. As it turns out this wasn't a lecture about smell at all. Instead it was a psychology experiment. Because in fact there was no smell. But despite this about a quarter of the audience still insisted they could sniff something.

The experiment is all about how we humans like to conform. Afterwards one of the audience was pretty dismissive of those people who fell for last night's "smell scam" calling them "sheep". But the truth is throughout human history most of us just don't want to stand out.

There are some classic studies to demonstrate this and perhaps the most famous are the Asch and the Milgram experiments. The Milgram experiment is actually pretty nasty. Subjects were convinced they were giving electric shocks to another person in an adjacent room. In fact there was no second person, instead the scientists were studying how far participants would go in obeying an authority figure. It's pretty unlikely any university ethics committee would allow you to put a volunteer through a similar study today.

So "the world's greatest smell" is a rather elegant experiment to follow on from that earlier research. It might leave people a bit embarrassed at being conned but nothing more.

That said we know at least 24 people in the audience thought they smelled something since they pressed the "yes" button on their voting keypad. But when we talked to people as they left the theatre only three were prepared to admit that they were taken in.

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