Unconscious Attraction – and Fear

New research suggests that the incest taboo may be more complex and interesting than current anthropological theories suggest.  Freud may have been closer to the truth, after all.

Wired recently noted that “researchers found that people are turned on by photographs of people who resemble their close genetic counterparts.”

In the experiment, subjects ranked the attractiveness of photos they were shown.  In some cases, they were primed by subliminal images of their own parents;  in others, the photos subtly morphed into images that incorporated parts of themselves.

“People appear to be drawn to others who resemble their kin or themselves,” said psychologist R. Chris Fraley of the University of Illinois.  “It is possible, therefore, as Freud suggested, that incest taboos exist to counter this primitive tendency.”

Wired summed it up: the “experiments support the Freudian idea that we have subconscious mechanisms that make us attracted to features that remind us of our own, and that cultural taboos against incest exist to override that primitive drive.”  (See, “You Are Sexually Attracted to Your Parents, Yourself.”)

There is other evidence for this tendency — as well as parallel perspectives.  Neuroscientists now understand that the brain organizes input according to pre-existing categories.  So the earlier experiences we all had with caregivers – those who were present and active in caring for us as children – become the templates for later relationships.  That may be why, as Professor Fraley put it, we are drawn to others who resemble our kin.

Psychoanalysts have called this tendency “transference,” since it seems that attachments to earlier figures in our lives are transferred to current figures with whom we are deeply engaged.  That’s why the people with whom we fall in love tend to resemble parental figures.  That also helps to explain why we reproduce parental expectations in our relationships with the therapists we come to trust and on whom we depend.

But those attachments can also become frightening if they are too intense or if they tempt us into actions that conflict with adult responsibilities.  It is touching for a daughter to say she wants to marry her daddy when she grows up, but it would be shocking for her daddy to encourage those feelings and criminal to exploit them.  Our culture is in agreement on that – for very good reasons.

It’s about the pathways of attraction and the fact that out behavior tends to follow pre-existing patterns.  That makes the world more familiar and less alien.  But we have to manage those tendencies as they can also get us into trouble.

What we don’t know we know is the inexorable force of past experience.