Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Is There Anything to be Learned from Freud's Oedipal Complex?

Ever wonder if what happened between Oedpius and his mother could happen in real life? Well, apparently it can. And there is a name for it: genetic sexual attraction.

Genetic sexual attraction occurs when genetic relatives meet for the first time in adulthood and an attraction develops. Although it is a rare occurrence, there has been an increase in the number of reported cases in recent years, typically as a consequence of adoption (according to Wikipedia).

I'm no fan of Freud, but it kind of makes me think.

It should definitely be noted though, that for the vast majority of people, it is thought that living in close domestic proximity as children become desensitized to later attraction. This hypothesized phenomenon is known as the Westermark effect. It only pertains to children being raised together, and does not take into consideration whether or not they are genetically related.

I'm not so much wondering about whether or not there is unconscious attraction between members of domestically-cohesive family units in the way Freud talked about it, but how the concepts of both genetic sexual attraction and the Westermarck effect can relate to normative relationships.

Sure, there have been documented accounts of attraction in types of incestuous relationships, but this certainly isn't the norm. Nor do I think this is due to under-reporting! And no, I'm not so sure that a lack of awareness of unconscious motivations is the reason either.

I think it might go something like this:

The Westermarck effect occurs for most people, but there might be a genetic reason why it doesn't kick in for some. I'm guessing this might be the case for the people in a documentary I watched - two genetic siblings who were raised together, eventually developed a relationship and started a family. [What was your physiological reaction to that little story? That's your Westermarck effect in action.]

So while there are probably genetic components coming into play when we see a lack of Westermarck effect, I'm guessing there might be some environmental components at work as well. I'll spare you the details of my thoughts about this, though! Suffices to say that there is usually a mix of genetics and environment resulting in any behavior - normative or not. [Basically, I'm guessing certain conditions can prompt this behavior. I also think that a lack of development of the Westermarck effect could be observed in people who are attracted to people in roles similar to that of a parent (e.g. the classic example of women without a father figure dating a much older man).]

Ok, so while the Westermarck effect (and any generalization about attraction to people in parental roles) may be the norm, what about the genetic sexual attraction sometimes seen in some people who are adopted?

Well, despite the popular cliche` that opposites attract, I'm not so sure. I've certainly come across research saying that people tend to pair off who are similar across many different areas. As you've probably experienced, bonding can occur when you have similar thoughts to someone else. Sure it would be boring if you were exactly the same, but I'm guessing you're probably more similar to the people you're close with than different.

Basically, if you're genetically similar to someone that you meet in adulthood, you could actually be very similar to them, being that genetics play such an important role in personality formation. An account from an adopted woman about her eventual relationship with her genetic father, described a close bond forming because she was more similar to him than anyone she had ever met.

In short, I don't think that we all have suppressed genetic sexual attraction - probably due to the Westermarck effect developing (and most of the time generalizing to people in similar roles). I'd imagine that people are simply attracted to people who directly or indirectly validate them because of similar attitudes.

For more posts from The Psychology Easel, visit the homepage.


As a side note: the problem of marriages or relationships going stale because more of a sibling relationship can develop, may be an interesting generalization of the Westermarck effect. I wonder if some have a stronger inclination for this effect (perhaps couples with a lack of sex drive). It may also have something to do with early development. Different types of effects could theoretically occur (e.g. quick forming attraction and then the Westermarck effect kicking in). Who knows? Something to think about.


Marriage Equality said...

Thank you for this interesting look at topics in which I am very interested. Genetic Sexual Attraction appears to occur in about 50% of reunions, meaning at least one person meeting a long-lost (separated before at least one of them reached 7 years of age) or never-before-met close genetic relative experiences a strong attraction, including a physical/sexual attraction, to the other. Sometimes the attraction is mutual. With donated eggs/sperm/embryos and infant adoptions and with everything from one night stands that result in pregnancy to bitter divorces between parents, this is no small issue.

Studies have indicated that a majority of people are attracted to people who look like them. Who looks more like you than your own sibling or parent? (Also, if your mother was attracted to a man, why wouldn't you be, given that you carry some of her genes?) But for MOST people, the Westermarck Effect is in place.

For whatever reason, it isn't present or isn't strong enough in the cases of consensual non-GSA incestuous attraction to overcome the physical attraction, convenience, and existing emotional bonds and trust that foster everything from experimentation to lifelong spousal-type relationships.

Tara Deliberto said...

Thank you for your comment! Interesting thoughts. I was actually thinking about the fact that if a daughter looked like her mother, it would make some sense for a genetically related father to be attracted to the daughter in a GSA situation.

Actually, the Westermarck Effect specifically pertains to people raised together. In most cases of "GSA" (not just incest), people meet for the first time in adulthood. Therefore, it would make sense that the Westermarck Effect doesn't occur in genetic relatives who meet for the first time in adulthood.

To take the discussion a bit further, I'm assuming the Westermarck Effect would occur among adopted, non-genetically related siblings.

Additionally, the Westermarck Effect does not kick-in when genetically related siblings are raised together, which would be a form of more typical types of incest - at least from what I understand.

Anonymous said...


I will post the short version of my story and I hope it will give you insight into your studies. I am also willing to share directly with you for your research if you choose. I find the Westermarck Effect some what of an interesting theory. I was adopted and have two half-sisters, I am very attracted to one and not the other at all. I also grew up with an adopted sister that I am in now way attracted (Westermarck Effect) so I am very hopeful to see more research into this taboo topic. On a side note with the Westermarck Effect, I am curious if this is why we find newcomers, either to our school, church, workplace attractive more times than not. Anyway, here is my story.

Here is my contribution and I hope it can help someone else or myself for that matter, by putting feelings into words. I was born in 1965 on the beautiful island of Oahu in the Hawaii chain. My mother was 15 when she got pregnant and 16 when I was born. Her parents, my grandparents forced her to give me up for adoption. I was adopted into a wonderful family and spent my years growing up like a normal kid. Around the age of thirty, I became curious about my background and my birth mother. I began a arduous journey to discovery, red tape and a reunion. I did my homework and tracked down how to contact birth mother. I wrote a letter to my mother, to be included with my adoption record in the court. This was the only way to do it with Hawaii. And this is predicated on the "chance" that she writes to the courts to find out if I have given her permission to contact me. In my case it worked out...17 years later. I was standing on the porch one day when the mailman got out of his jeep and came to the door. This is remarkable since the only time he ever gets out is if you have to sign something. We I did. It was a return receipt from the 4th Circuit Court in Honolulu, Hawaii. It could only be one thing. It birth mother had written the courts seeking information. And God Bless the clerk who put my letter together for including my birth mothers contact information. To make a long story short, we were reunited on my 42nd birthday and I not only met my birth mother, but my two half-sisters. It is important to note that I have two half-sisters and I am attracted to only one. She was very attractive to me from the moment I saw her. My first thought was, wow, I have a beautiful sister. Needless to say the first visit was a whirlwind and we didn't get to spend much time together. Over the next 8 years we have seen each other 3 or 4 times for the afternoon. In speaking with her, I have discovered that we are very similar in our core beliefs, emotions and behaviors. I am planning a visit for a weekend where we can talk about our different childhoods and compare notes. I am not really sure I will act on my attraction to her, but the feeling is there and it is very, very real. I'll keep you posted and feel free to comment, harass, praise, complain or just say hello. I am a writer and I am used to the comments.


Tara Deliberto said...

I realize this is very delayed, but thank you so much for reading and posting. I'm sure many find your story interesting and much curiosity is generated in readers about the future. At this stage, I think there is not much else to say other than I wish you the best of luck with what I'm sure involves the containment of many complex emotions. And of course, please feel free to leave updates!