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Visual attention for a desktop virtual environment with ambient scent

Author: Toet, A. · Schaik, M.G. van
Source:Frontiers in Psychology, 4
Identifier: 483256
doi: doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00883
Article number: 883
Keywords: Psychology · Attention · Ambient odor · Semantic congruency · Affective congruency · Virtual environment · Scent · Human · PCS - Perceptual and Cognitive Systems TPI - Training & Performance Innovations · BSS - Behavioural and Societal Sciences


In the current study participants explored a desktop virtual environment (VE) representing a suburban neighborhood with signs of public disorder (neglect, vandalism and crime), while being exposed to either room air (control group), or subliminal levels of tar (unpleasant; typically associated with burned or waste material) or freshly cut grass (pleasant; typically associated with natural or fresh material) ambient odor. They reported all signs of disorder they noticed during their walk together with their associated emotional response. Based on recent evidence that odors reflexively direct visual attention to (either semantically or affectively) congruent visual objects, we hypothesized that participants would notice more signs of disorder in the presence of ambient tar odor (since this odor may bias attention to unpleasant and negative features), and less signs of disorder in the presence of ambient grass odor (since this odor may bias visual attention towards the vegetation in the environment and away from the signs of disorder). Contrary to our expectations the results show that the presence of an ambient odor did not affect the participants’ visual attention for signs of disorder or their emotional response. We conclude that a closer affective, semantic or spatiotemporal link between the contents of a desktop VE and ambient scents may be required to effectively establish diagnostic associations that guide a user’s attention. In the absence of these direct links, ambient scent may be more diagnostic for the physical environment of the observer as a whole than for the particular items in that environment (or, in this case, items represented in the VE).