Research studies using similar T-shirt experiments have shown that people prefer different human scents. But whose smell they prefer is dictated by a set of genes that influence our immune response — which researchers say is nature's way of preventing inbreeding and preserving genetic adaptations developed over time.
"Humans can pick up this incredibly small chemical difference with their noses," said Martha McClintock, founder of the Institute for Mind and Biology at the University of Chicago. "It is like an initial screen."
In one such study, McClintock and her colleagues had participants sniff inside a covered box without knowing that in some cases they were smelling worn T-shirts. What they found was people preferred the odors of those who had different genetic makeups from their own, but not radically different.
In Los Angeles, several dozen 20-somethings headed to the gallery at night in search of romance — or at least out of curiosity. They posed playfully for the photographer with shirts they liked, hoping the owner might step forward and say hello.
Few did. Some admitted they had seen their number flashed on the wall but were too shy to identify themselves.
But there was still plenty of chatter as beer-sipping singles turned up their noses at bags that smelled like hiker's sweat and their aunt's old carpet and took a second whiff of sweet and musky fragrances they liked but couldn't peg — a playful exercise that served as an icebreaker to what otherwise could have been an awkward gathering of strangers.
Karen Arellano threw back her head and laughed after trying a handful of bags that reeked of sweat, coffee and even weed — but said she didn't really come to the party in search of love.
"I don't think I'm going to find anything more than, 'Hi, how are you,' a conversation," the 29-year-old baker said. "That's expectation enough."
Prays said she's also learned from the experience that while scent is powerful, it isn't enough to detect a good match.
"Animals have babies and they move on, and that's what the pheromone party is," said Prays, who may start including a few pertinent details on the index cards, like a person's relationship expectations. "The most successful thing about it is it opens up conversation."