Scent of coffee alone can help improve test performance, boosts mental alertness

HOBOKEN, N. J. — Recent research has shown that consuming coffee regularly can add years to your life and protect you from heart disease, cancer, liver failure, and even dementia. But it turns out you don’t have to be a coffee drinker at all to enjoy its benefits. A new study shows that simply the smell of a cup of joe can boost your academic performance by helping you score better on tests.

Researchers from the Stevens Institute of Technology, Temple University, and Baruch College discovered that people taking a sample GMAT (Graduate Management Aptitude Test) scored higher when the scent of coffee filled the room.  In fact, the smell of coffee, they found, even added an extra layer of confidence for test-takers, increasing their expectations of performing better on the exam.

Cup of coffee
A new study shows that simply the smell of a cup of joe can boost your academic performance by helping you score better on tests. (Photo by Alex on Unsplash)

“It’s not just that the coffee-like scent helped people perform better on analytical tasks, which was already interesting,” says study co-author Adriana Madzharov, a Stevens School of Business professor, in a release. “But they also thought they would do better, and we demonstrated that this expectation was at least partly responsible for their improved performance.”

For the study, Madzharov and her team enlisted 100 undergraduate business students to take a 10-question GMAT algebra test. Some students competed their exam in a computer lab that smelled of coffee, while the others worked in an unscented room. The test results showed students in the room that reeked of coffee scored markedly higher on their test.

Curious as to why the scent of coffee led to greater performance, the authors recruited 200 more participants and polled them on their thoughts about scent perception — that is, could the smell of coffee alone spark a more alert mindset before an exam? Participants were surveyed on various odors and how the scents might affect their performance. The authors found that people believed they’d feel more alert and energetic when a room smelled of coffee, as opposed to a room smelling of flowers, or a room that had no scent at all. That led the researchers to conclude that the scent of coffee created a placebo effect comparable to the caffeine-boost one might get from drinking a cup.

Madzharo believes the study extends to more than just test-taking: the scent of coffee may even help employees feel more enthusiastic or productive in the office.

“Olfaction is one of our most powerful senses,” says Madzharov. “Employers, architects, building developers, retail space managers and others, can use subtle scents to help shape employees’ or occupants’ experience with their environment. It’s an area of great interest and potential.”

While study participants fared better when their algebra skills were tested, Madzharov hopes to conduct similar research for other skillsets, such as verbal reasoning.

The full study was published in the April 2018 edition of the Journal of Environmental Psychology.

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