Aromatherapy: Does Scent Affect Mood?

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Updated on Feb 06, 2012

Grade Level: Middle School; Type: Life Science, Social Science.


  • Explore psychological mood states and emotions.
  • Learn about our response to scents and consider why they might affect our mood state.
  • Learn the basic steps of experimental testing.

Research Questions:

  • Why might the scent of orange elevate one’s mood?
  • Why might the scent of frankincense elevate one’s mood?
  • Is there any reason to believe that one of these scents might be more effective than the other in elevating one’s mood?

Over the course of human evolutionary history, scents served as clues to our ancestors about the nature of people and things in their environment. As a result, we have evolved responses to many scents. Aroma therapists believe the naturally occuring scents orange and frankincense make people happier. Are they right? In this study, subjects will complete an emotion and mood questionnaire. Then they will be exposed to one of the two scents. You'll compare differences before and after "scent treatment" for each scent group, as well as the differences between the average change in mood associated with each scent. To measure moods, we'll be using the Likert scale template.


  • Frankincense oil
  • Orange oil
  • Thirty cotton balls
  • Two zip-lock sandwich bags
  • Paper and pencil or pen
  • Poster board, glue

Note: The oils may be purchased inexpensively at and also can be found at many health food stores. Other products are readily available at variety, drug, or grocery stores.

Preparation and Materials:

  1. Create the ‘Feeling’ Likert scale template: On an 8-1/2” x 11” piece of paper, draw fifteen 7” long horizontal lines, one below the other, leaving space to write between each line. Create cross-hatches at each inch mark (on each line), and number the cross-hatches one to seven. Below each numbered line write one of the following words: Angry, disappointed, happy, jealous, surprised, sad, proud, fearful, content, envious, satisfied, ashamed, guilty, exhilarated, remorseful. At the top of the page write: "Below is a list of feeling states. Consider each state and indicate on the line the degree to which you feel that way right now, with 'O' meaning ‘Not at all’ and '7' meaning ‘Very strongly’, by placing an “X” at the appropriate place on the line."
  2. Make at least 62 copies of the template. On 15 of them, write “orange” on the top of the page; on another 15, write “frankincense” at the top of the page. Set aside the remaining copies with nothing at the top.
  3. Place a few drops of orange on 15 cotton balls and place them in a baggie; likewise, place a few drops of frankincense on 15 cotton balls and place them in another baggie.
  4. Try to gather, if you can, 30 participants, and divide them into two groups. (Ask a teacher if your classmates can participate.)

Experimental Procedure

  1. Have each participant complete the ‘Feeling’ Likert scale. After they are finished, they should turn it upside down on the desktop and not look at it again.
  2. Provide the participant with the appropriate scent-soaked cotton ball. Have them hold it 1” below their nostrils and breathe in the scent for 15-30 seconds.
  3. As the participant continues to hold the cottonball under their nose, he or she should complete a second Likert scale.
  4. When the participant is done with their second Likert scale, staple their two scales together.
  5. Instruct the subject to wash his/her hands, and wash your own hands.
  6. For each pair of Likert scales, calculate the change in the ‘sad’ scale from the first (without scent) scale to the second (with scent). Add up the changes for all ‘orange’ condition subjects and divide by the number of subjects in that condition to find the average change in reported sadness; do the same for the ‘frankincense’ condition subjects.
  7. Create a bar graph in which the average change in reported sadness for each of the two groups is compared, being sure to label the bars and the graph itself appropriately.

Terms/Concepts: What is the difference between a ‘mood’ and an ‘emotion’?; What are essential oils?; What is ‘aromatherapy’?; How do moods and emotions influence our behavior?; What is a ‘Likert scale’?


Dr. LaCerra is an evolutionary neuroscientist, author of âThe Origin of Mindsâ (with co-author, Roger Bingham, Harmony, 2002) and a columnist and contributing editor at âSpirituality & Healthâ Magazine.

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