A lot of Freud’s ideas about sex are uncomfortable, to say the least, but perhaps none more so than his claim that we secretly harbor sexual desire for our parents—something he termed the Oedipus Complex in boys and the Electra Complex in girls.
Modern-day psychologists and psychiatrists have, thankfully, distanced themselves from this idea. However, you may be surprised to learn that while research hasn’t found support for the notion that we’re attracted to our parents, there is a growing body of work suggesting that our parents do shape who we’re attracted to, including a new study just published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior.
In this study, 769 heterosexual women and 149 gay men from the Czech Republic viewed silhouettes of nude men who varied in body type. They were asked to select the image that most closely resembled their current or most recent partner, their ideal partner, and their father (as they remembered him in childhood).
There turned out to be a small, but statistically significant association between the body shape of participants’ fathers and their ideal partners. Specifically, for straight women, regardless of whether their father was heavy-set, lean, or muscular, they tended to envision their ideal partner as having a similar body type. This finding was most pronounced among women who reported having a positive relationship with their dad growing up.
Among gay men, the effect was more limited: Only those with skinny fathers showed a preference for leanness in their ideal partners. This means that having a muscular or heavy-set father was not linked to a preference for those traits among gay men. Further, unlike heterosexual women, the quality of the relationship with one’s father didn’t seem to matter for gay guys.
This study is just one of many to emerge in recent years reporting a link between the physical traits of our early caregivers and the traits we prefer in our romantic partners. For example, in a 2013 study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, scientists found that participants who were born to older parents (mothers and/or fathers) tended to be attracted to older persons in adulthood.
It doesn’t stop there. There are numerous other documented similarities between the characteristics of people’s parents (usually those of the opposite sex, given that most studies have focused on heterosexual people) and their actual or ideal partners, including height, hair and eye color, and amount of body hair.
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So what gives? Why do we seem to be attracted to people who physically resemble our parents? We can’t say for sure, but there are a few theories.
One is that humans, like many animals, go through a sexual “imprinting” process at a young age. During a critical period in development, we learn to associate the traits of our caregivers with those of a desirable mate. The classic demonstration of this idea, if you’ve ever taken an introductory psychology course, comes from the research of Konrad Lorenz, who demonstrated imprinting processes among baby geese.
Lorenz found that baby geese imprint on the first moving object they see and begin to treat it as their mother—hence why every article about Lorenz’s work features a photo of him being trailed by a gaggle of geese. But the truly fascinating thing is that the geese that imprinted on Lorenz later attempted to mate with human men who resembled him.
The appeal of the imprinting theory is that it can help to explain not just why we seem to be attracted to people who bear resemblance to our parents, but also why certain fetishes develop. People with foot fetishes, for example, can often tie them back to an early childhood experience.
What’s behind this imprinting process? Most argue for an evolutionary explanation, such that developing an attraction to certain parental traits might lead to reproductive advantages (of course, as long as it doesn’t make us want to mate with people who are too genetically close to us, given that incest increases the risk of certain birth defects). For example, to the extent that this contributes to a preference for very distant relatives over people we are completely unrelated to, maybe it enhances our chances of reproductive success. Consistent with this idea, some research has found that people who are related at the level of third or fourth cousins have the highest rates of fertility.
With all of that said, there are some important caveats. First, the associations that scientists have found in this area are pretty weak, and there are inconsistencies across studies. For example, some only find links between parental and ideal partner traits, but not actual partner traits (like the brand new study in Evolution and Human Behavior, which looked at body types).
However, when you consider that there are lots of constraints placed on us in terms of our ability to select partners in the real world (maybe the person we desire doesn’t want us, or maybe we just don’t have a lot of options), inconsistent and weak effects are to be expected.
In addition, some studies find that the associations depend upon the quality of the relationship you have with your parents and, as mentioned above, relationship quality might matter more when it comes to heterosexual people's preferences—perhaps because gays and lesbians are less likely to be accepted by their parents. This adds a whole other level of complexity to the equation. Plus, attraction isn’t only about the way someone looks, either. For example, psychological traits like intelligence, humor, honesty, and kindness are really big factors when it comes to what we’re looking for in a romantic partner.
So while there does seem to be something to this idea that we’re attracted to people who resemble our parents on some level, it’s far from a foregone conclusion that you’re going to end up with a partner who looks like your mom or dad.
Justin Lehmiller is the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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