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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
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