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Is the Incest Taboo Innate or Learned?

Marriage between cousins may be making a comeback, but attraction to immediate family members will hopefully always be taboo. Yet the ick factor we feel at the mere suggestion may be a learned behavior instead of an innate trait.

We're attracted to people who are like us. That makes sense. But a new study found that people give strangers higher marks in attractiveness if they resemble their parents or selves.

To find this out, subjects rated the attractiveness of images flashed on a wall. Some were primed with photos of their parents or themselves, and others were primed with images of strangers; however, in both cases the images flashed so quickly that they could not be perceived on a conscious level. People who viewed themselves or their parents first were more likely to rate the stranger as attractive.


Freud's insistence that the incest taboo was adapted to suppress biological urges has been dismissed until now; instead the more palatable idea — our aversion is a byproduct of evolution — was favored. However, scientists now say both theories have credence.

My first thought was that it's possible neither is entirely correct. Viewing familiar images first may create a sense of safety and openness, which allows us to perceive others as more attractive later. The author of the study has a similar theory, but with science to back it up! Brains process familiar images more quickly, allowing subsequent images to be judged more favorably.

Image Source: Thinkstock
Join The Conversation
danakscully64 danakscully64 6 years
I'm trying to track down that article I was talking about, but I just can't seem to find it. :(
Skeptic52 Skeptic52 6 years
There are also TONS of studies that prove people are attracted to people with a smell that signifies a genetic difference to themselves, as possibly natural insurance that the species would create stronger immune systems (due to the genetic variance). Maybe emotionally, we pick people with personalities closest to our parents. Like the old adage that women date men just like their fathers, especially if their fathers were jerks. That's just as true for me, a lot of the time, especially if their moms were controlling. I think that personality part holds truer. My husband looks NOTHING like my very dark, olive-complected, Sicilian family. In fact, I've never been attracted to anyone who looked like that, even though I think it's beautiful. BUT, he's EXACTLY like my grandfather, the person who raised me, in a lot of personality ways.
mswender mswender 6 years
My great-grandparents were first cousins and no one in my family has any mutations or deformities. I am not endorsing the practice in any way, but just saying that the practice is in a lot of our family trees. All of my first cousins are women and more like sisters than cousins.
stephley stephley 6 years
I think it's more nature than nurture - seems to me that in the beginning, keeping everything in the family would be beneficial and encouraged. But I also think the study sounds like crap - drawing huge conclusions from limited observations.
danakscully64 danakscully64 6 years
I read an article in Women's Health a while back about (I hope I'm getting this right) how we're not wired to be attracted to family. We're attracted to different pheromones, it was a nature's way of keeping us from incest in the past. Getting on The Pill can actually change who we're attracted to, I found that very interesting.
French-Kiss French-Kiss 6 years
I would say learned. I think it depends of the relations you have with your cousins. With my cousins we are not close at all. Moreover, for example i hate to date people i don't know, i prefer to date my friends, so considering that, if i had a good relationship with an attractive cousin, i wouldn't find it taboo. When i read old books, like the old Miss Marple, and they talk about cousins marrying, well i actually don't find it that odd. But for today, i wouldn't marry my cousins, and if to me cousins are fine, it's when they are not considred as brothers. Between brothers/sisters, i find it awful.
postmodernsleaze postmodernsleaze 6 years
Studio16, I know what you mean about the marriage thing between little kids! I remember when I was super little saying that I would marry my dad when I grew up. But I didn't really know what that meant, obviously, haha. The thought of being with any of my male cousins is utterly sickening to me. Whether it is learned or innate, I don't care. I'm just glad I have a lot of other, unrelated options.
starbucks2 starbucks2 6 years
I too think it's a learned taboo. I had this discussion with my brother the other day (who I don't want to marry ;) ) The thing is, that the common misconception is kids of related parents will be retarted mutants. Genetically it's actually more likely that a smoker will have a disabled child. But you don't forbid smokers to marry in fear of them having children....
Studio16 Studio16 6 years
I wouldn't say that the thought of it makes me physically ill, but then, I try not to think about having sex with my first cousins! My male cousins are all nice, handsome guys, but I don't want a sexual relationship with any of them. I did, however, want to marry my cousin when I was a kid. We were just brother-sister close. He was five, I was three, and he set me straight by saying, "Cousins can't marry cousins, we'd go to jail." Haha. But, I know a lot of people who wanted to marry cousins/siblings before they knew that a marriage involved sex. I just wanted to marry my cousin so we could be together all the time, it's not like I was having fantasies about him. Now the thought of having sex with him is...I tried thinking about it just now, I can't. I can't even fathom it. It's gross.
totygoliguez totygoliguez 6 years
To answer your question, it is a taboo for me, and hopefully for most people.
totygoliguez totygoliguez 6 years
The thought of having a relationship with any of my 40 first-cousins, even with my more distance cousins, makes me want to vomit. It is just disgusting! My cousins are like my brothers and sisters--even if I can't stand them for most of the time.
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