Freud vs Westermarck, the debate.

Today I found this article today while doing a little research online. It’s a small study attempting to prove whether Freud or Westermarck was right with regards to the origin of the incest taboo.

Freudian theory argues that people are generally suppressing their ‘dangerous’ desires for incestuous relationships, and that the taboo is in place to prevent people from giving in to such desires, as that would be bad for the survival rate of the resulting children (we have to remember, they didn’t know jack about genetics back in his time).

Westermarck theory argues that during childhood we go through a process called reverse sexual imprinting, which prevents us from becoming attracted to family members, and indeed others, amongst whom we were raised, and therefore it became a taboo for relatives to become intimate.

Both theories seem to have merit and they both make sense, however they are clearly contradictory. How can BOTH these be true? Logically they can’t be. So there was a study done to try to settle the debate. The study IMO does have some limitations, namely the small sample size, but this is what was done:

Chris Fraley and Michael Marks asked 74 students to rate the sexual attractiveness of 100 strangers’ faces. Crucially, for half the students, each face was preceded by a subliminal presentation of a family member. For the remaining control students, the subliminal presentation was of someone else’s family member, i.e. a non-relative.

Subliminals are used in advertising all the time, and companies would not be spending large amounts of money on them if they didn’t increase the sale of their products. So knowing for sure that subliminals do work is important to understanding the significance of the results of this study. Just in case any readers wonder what a subliminal is, it’s something that is not consciously registered by your brain, yet is registered by your subconscious that misses nothing.

If Westermarck is right, the ones who viewed the subliminals would rate the faces as less attractive. The result of this study?

the students who were subliminally presented with a family member actually rated the strangers’ faces as more attractive than did the control students

This is 1:0 to Freud, but we’re not done just yet. The researchers did another experiment, a little different this time:

In a second study, 40 students rated the sexual attractiveness of faces that either had or hadn’t been morphed to varying degrees to resemble their own face (a way of simulating genetic relatedness). The students presented with the morphed faces rated them as more sexually attractive than did control students who viewed unaltered faces, and the greater the morphing, the greater the perceived attractiveness

And finally;

For the final study, a group of students once again rated the sexual attractiveness of strangers’ faces. This time half the students were told falsely that some of the faces had been morphed to resemble them, as a way to simulate genetic relatedness. The students fed this lie subsequently rated the faces as less attractive than the control students who thought they were simply rating strangers’ faces

So, what does all of this mean?

This definitely appears to support Freudian theory that it is the incest taboo itself that makes people find their family members unattractive, and were the taboo removed, many more people would most likely have incestuous relationships. One only has to look at a culture like ancient Egypt where there was no incest taboo, and up to 20% of the population was married to a family member to realize that this is the case.

So why now do some of us flout this taboo? Perhaps the desires Freud spoke of is stronger in some people and weaker in others. For consanguinamorous people, it is clearly so strong as to shatter the incest taboo itself, and breaking such a strong cultural taboo isn’t something people do on some whim.

Freuds theory to me makes a lot more sense than Westermarcks, it explains why consanguinamory happens in terms of the attraction being there, whereas Westermarcks theory doesn’t. The best that the Westermarck theory has to offer is that not everyone experiences the Westermarck effect. I am not saying that the Westermarck theory is absolutely proven wrong all of the time, because it is a known fact that step-siblings who grow up together do not usually develop any romantic attraction despite their being no genetic link between them. That said, it could be because it is culturally considered incest rather than genetically so.

It’s interesting and food for thought anyway 🙂