Frances Chen

Associate Professor

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Graduate Student Supervision

Doctoral Student Supervision (Jan 2008 - Nov 2020)
The smelly truth: evidence that exposure to the scent of a romantic partner reduces stress reactivity and improves sleep efficiency (2020)

Close contact with loved ones is essential for both mental and physical health. Social support provided by loved ones can reduce stress, improve sleep quality, promote positive health behaviors, and increase resilience to adversity. In everyday life, however, people commonly experience periods of separation from their loved ones. Can the benefits of social support occur even when loved ones are physically distant? The study reported in Chapter 2 collected data from 96 women who were randomly assigned to smell one of three scents (their romantic partner’s, a stranger’s, or a neutral scent) and exposed to an acute social stressor (Trier Social Stress Test). Perceived stress and cortisol were measured continuously throughout the study. Perceived stress was reduced in women who were exposed to their partner’s scent. Cortisol levels were elevated in women who were exposed to a stranger’s scent. Cortisol levels were also reduced in women who were exposed to their partner’s scent, but only in a subset of women who were able to identify their partner’s scent. These results suggest that the scent of a partner improves the psychological experience of stress and improves cortisol levels in a subset of women who correctly identified the scent to be their partner’s. The study reported in Chapter 3 collected data from 155 participants who spent two nights with their partner’s scent and two nights with a control scent (order randomized). Sleep efficiency (via actigraphy) and perceived sleep quality (via self-report) were measured each night. Sleep efficiency was higher when participants were exposed to their partner’s scent. Exposure to a partner’s scent led sleep efficiency to increase by over two percent on average, an improvement similar in magnitude to the effect of melatonin on sleep. Perceived sleep quality was higher when participants believed they were smelling their partner’s scent. These results suggest that the scent of a partner improves the physiological state of sleep and that believing you are exposed to the scent of your partner improves the psychological recollection of sleep quality. This research adds to our understanding of the role of olfactory cues in the communication of social support.

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Master's Student Supervision (2010 - 2018)
Meal choice modeling in a cafe: the roles of relationship, awareness, and familiarity (2017)

It is well established that the presence of other people affects how much people eat and the types of food they choose. Past research on food choice modeling has focused on snack foods and has primarily been conducted in controlled laboratory situations. The current research examines modeling of meal choice in a real-life context across two studies. Study 1 (N = 231 café patrons) tested whether meal choice modeling occurs, whether people are aware of being influenced, and whether knowing the model affects whether modeling occurs. The lunch orders of café patrons were surreptitiously tracked and participants were recruited after they paid for their lunch. Participants were asked whether they were influenced by the prior order, and what their relationship was to the person ahead of them in line. As hypothesized, participants modeled the lunch choice of the person ordering ahead of them in line above rates expected by chance. Contrary to predictions about the role of relationship, participants did not model at different rates following a stranger compared to a non-stranger. Hypotheses about modeling awareness were supported with a significant modeling effect observed even among participants who reported that their order was not influenced by the prior order. Study 2 (N = 69 students) tested familiarity to the café or social environment as a moderator. To increase variability in familiarity with the café, participants were students brought into the café for the study. Study 2 yielded inconclusive findings, possibly due to low statistical power. This research provided evidence of meal choice modeling occurring in real-life eating situations and outside of conscious awareness - demonstrating a powerful social influence on health behaviours.

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