A growing body of literature documents how exposure to another person's fear-related body odorants can increase one's own anxiety and interfere with processing of social information, such as facial expression and impression formation. Building on these results, we aimed to 1) test the hypothesis that exposure to fear-related odorant would affect impression formation through fear contagion and 2) verify whether these effects can be observed in an ecologically valid (i.e., virtual) environment. We proposed that exposure to fear-related odorant would cause receivers to feel more anxious, which in turn would lead them to report less trust toward an unknown virtual character. This study had 2 distinct phases. First, we collected perspiration odorants from the armpits of 12 male senders (i.e., the source of the odorant) during the viewing of either fear or joy inducing film clips. In the second phase, 53 women receivers were exposed to either a fear, joy, or neutral odorant (i.e., between-subjects design) by breathing through a gauze attached to a disposable respirator mask while immersed in a virtual bar. As expected, receivers exposed to fear odorants felt significantly more stressed. Mediation analysis also revealed an indirect effect of exposure on trust through anxiety. More specifically, the more anxious the receiver felt, the less she trusted the virtual character. Our results show for the first time that the impact of exposure to fear-related body odorants on negative interpersonal impression formation is mediated by the anxiety induced in the receiver.

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