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Too Close for Comfort

Article #338 • Written by Marisa Brook

Edvard Westermarck
Edvard Westermarck

One of the most common taboos across human societies of the past and present has been incest. Virtually every known culture has considered it repulsive, especially when involving siblings or a parent and child. The leading behavioural theory that has been proposed to account for the ubiquity of this aversion is known as the Westermarck effect, after Finnish scholar Edvard Westermarck, who proposed it in his 1891 book The History of Human Marriage. The idea of the Westermarck effect is that young children will become sexually/romantically desensitised to anyone they live in close contact with over the course of the first few years of their lives. That is, they will reach adulthood with no compulsion to consider a relationship with anyone they shared a home with in their early childhood. Note that crucially, the connection does not have to be biological; according to the theory, it applies just as readily to children adopted at a young age as to those raised by their birth parents. But since children are likely to be raised by at least one of their biological parents – about 97.5% of children in the U.S., according to the 2000 census – the effect is thought to have arisen through evolution because it reduces the chances of inbreeding, which can tie the gene-pool up in ugly knots of emergent recessive traits. It functions well in this respect. However, when a child is separated from biological family at an early age, there is no chance for the Westermarck effect to take hold; reunions between biological relatives who were separated much earlier sometimes lead into unforeseen emotional territory.

The Westermarck effect is a hypothesis, but there is evidence to support it. Some Israeli citizens live in communal homesteads named kibbutzes (or kibbutzim in Hebrew). Property is usually shared, income is often doled out more or less equally, and children are all raised together in groups according to age. Unsurprisingly, the kibbutz model has been of major interest to sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists. The finding relevant to the Westermarck effect is that young adults in the same age-group are seldom attracted to each other, even when their parents more or less expect them to be. A study by American cultural anthropologist Melford Spiro that examined 3,000 marriages within the kibbutz system found that only about 15 weddings involved pairs of people who were raised in the same group of children. Furthermore, none of these pairs had been raised with their partners before the age of six. This strongly suggests a sort of ‘critical period’ for the Westermarck effect, operating behind-the-scenes for the first six years of life.

Another source of evidence for the Westermarck effect comes from what happens when it is noticeably absent. Genetically related individuals who are not raised together often fail to be sexually and romantically blind to each other. That is, when a pair of biologically related individuals meet for the first time in adulthood, they often find each other very attractive. Genes ensure that the two have a lot in common, and the absence of the Westermarck effect sometimes makes them difficult for one another to resist. This is a converse theory known as genetic sexual attraction (GSA).

GSA is not inevitable, but it is common. The term was coined by American Barbara Gonyo. Pregnant at 15 in the mid-1950s, Gonyo was forced to give her son Mitch up for adoption when he was born. The two found each other again around 1980, and Gonyo, then 42, was horrified to realise that she was feeling very attracted to her 26-year-old son. Even allowing for Mitch’s resemblance to his father, Gonyo’s first love, Gonyo’s reaction struck her as extreme and disgusting. Eventually, though, she came to terms with her feelings, attributing them to the lack of bonding in her son’s early childhood. Fortunately, her son did not reciprocate, and they did not pursue a relationship.

But in some cases of genetic sexual attraction, the feelings are mutual. A Canadian woman identified as ‘Sally’ and her biological son felt immediately attracted to one another upon meeting again, 30 years after the boy’s birth. Their physical relationship developed, and the young man could hardly believe that the woman he found to be a perfect match was his biological mother. American couple Rachel and Shawn met in 1999 when they were both 27 and have been an enthusiastically happy couple since. They sought each other out after learning that they shared a birth father. Rachel and Shawn – who are engaged but legally prohibited from getting married – discussed in a 2007 report with ABC News all the ways in which they are a perfectly ordinary couple. They are even devout Christians; but their deep love for one another is what they consider the most important part of their lives.

It is reported again and again. Genetic sexual attraction – both one-sided and reciprocal – has been known to take hold between reunited siblings, a parent and child, an uncle and niece, and more. Typically the attachment is so strong that the individuals involved are compelled to overlook all else.

Jennifer and John, half-siblings from England, left their respective spouses and moved in with one another. American Kathryn Harrison was seduced by the biological father she met in adulthood and carried on a relationship with him for four years. A pair of sisters, neither of whom reported any prior attraction to women, fell in love with each other. Americans Phil and Pearl became highly attracted to one another after meeting; Pearl is Phil’s biological grandmother, who gave Phil’s mother up for adoption after giving birth to her at the age of 18. Germans Patrick and Susan – biological siblings who did not meet until adulthood – fell in love, have given birth to four children (at least two of whom are developmentally disabled), and have been fighting German incest laws ever since.

Few scientific investigations of the phenomenon known as GSA exist, but one was conducted by Maurice Greenberg and Roland Littlewood of University College London. The researchers looked at more than 40 cases of GSA and ended up concluding that up to 50% of reunions between adults who had been separated by early adoption involve GSA on the part of at least one of the individuals. In other words, what looks like taboo most of the time appears to be a fairly ordinary response to the exceptional circumstances of biological family members being brought back together long after parting. Greenberg notes that the connections established between reunited family members tend to be profound and respectful, and nothing at all like cases of incest involving non-consenting individuals. He also found evidence for the Westermarck effect operating elsewhere in his participants’ lives: when Greenberg asked individuals affected by GSA whether they would ever consider forming romantic/sexual relationships with members of their adopted families, they tended to shudder with repulsion.

Sigmund Freud
Sigmund Freud

One major question raised by any examination of sexual relationships involving biological family members is where, exactly, this leaves Sigmund Freud. Freud’s pioneering work in psychoanalysis has contributed an immense amount to the modern field of psychology, but he has become notorious for having proposed that infants are sexually attracted to the parent of the opposite sex and that these feelings have to be suppressed – almost the diametric opposite of the Westermarck effect theory. While there is some evidence that heterosexual men and women may favour potential partners who share physical features with their opposite-sex parents, for most of us the thought of sexual attraction to a parent is absurd. Freud did not think much of Westermarck’s ideas, and he himself actively recalled having once had a fairly noticeable physical reaction to his naked mother getting dressed. But, says cognitive scientist Steven Pinker in his book How the Mind Works, it is Westermarck who may have the last word. Pinker speculates that the reason why Freud was able to have such a dramatic response to the sight of his own mother putting her clothes on was that as a baby, Sigmund had been cared for by a wet nurse. Perhaps it was this nurse, and not his mother, to whom Sigmund became desensitised; in other words, the Westermarck effect was not fully activated between the young Freud and his biological mother. “The Westermarck theory,” Pinker says in summary, “has out-Freuded Freud.”

Article written by Marisa Brook, published on 29 May 2012. Marisa lives in Toronto, Canada. She collects postcards, fridge magnets, lapel pins, interesting rocks, and linguistics degrees.

Article design by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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24 Comments
sssssssspoon
Posted 29 May 2012 at 08:37 am

Weird.


snap
Posted 29 May 2012 at 10:08 am

Hillbillies


Falos
Posted 29 May 2012 at 11:43 am

I often root for the childhood friend route only to end up disappointed.

Westermarck: "Tifa didn't stand a chance."


J.K.
Posted 29 May 2012 at 12:02 pm

Very interesting article covering the theories at play there with biological family and the effects of disassociation due to whatever caused the long term separation. It does appear so that Freud got out-freuded alright. Well played with the Osmonds too. :D


SockMonkey
Posted 30 May 2012 at 05:40 am

You know, that makes a lot of sense. I grew up very close to my Mother, and to my Sister, and I can say for certain that I have no sexual attraction to either.


charles darnay
Posted 30 May 2012 at 01:03 pm

What does "They are even debout christians" mean? What does that have to do with anything??


Marisa Brook
Posted 30 May 2012 at 01:29 pm

One might have expected the couple's shared deep religion to make them especially uncomfortable with the idea of dating each other given that they are half-siblings. But they are so close to one another that they decided they could overlook the potential objections based on their religious beliefs. It speaks to the strength of attraction that those affected by GSA experience.


HiEv
Posted 30 May 2012 at 02:36 pm

I'm wondering how many people recognize Donny and Marie Osmond in that picture from the article. You ought to replace it with a picture of Luke and Princess Leia. ;-)

But seriously, remind me not to look up my biological parents. That sounds... awkward.


charles darnay
Posted 30 May 2012 at 07:50 pm

Marisa Brook said: "One might have expected the couple’s shared deep religion to make them especially uncomfortable with the idea of dating each other given that they are half-siblings. But they are so close to one another that they decided they could overlook the potential objections based on their religious beliefs. It speaks to the strength of attraction that those affected by GSA experience."

So, are you saying that dating a half sibling is more taboo for a christian than for an atheist?


panorama
Posted 31 May 2012 at 03:10 am

charles darnay said: "Marisa Brook said: “One might have expected the couple’s shared deep religion to make them especially uncomfortable with the idea of dating each other given that they are half-siblings. But they are so close to one another that they decided they could overlook the potential objections based on their religious beliefs. It speaks to the strength of attraction that those affected by GSA experience.”
So, are you saying that dating a half sibling is more taboo for a christian than for an atheist?"

Since this IS explicitly forbidden in the bible, I'd say YES.

You have the tone of someone defending his/her faith, yet obviously are not familiar with the bible. What gives?


charles darnay
Posted 31 May 2012 at 06:18 am

Well if we come from Adan and Eve, it seems it shouldn´t be forbidden :P.


Marisa Brook
Posted 31 May 2012 at 11:21 am

When it comes to things that are generally frowned-upon but that do not involve harming anyone (such as incestuous relationships with mutual consent and without children), the religious people have a big extra obstacle: the possibility of disapproval/judgment on the part of whichever higher power they believe is watching. I don't believe that religious people are generally any more or less moral than their non-religious counterparts; it's just that the religious are the only ones who might hesitate based on the possibility that whichever deity/deities/spirits they personally believe in would very much dislike their behaviour.


charles darnay
Posted 31 May 2012 at 11:53 am

Thanks for the answer.


js305
Posted 03 June 2012 at 06:29 am

I have cousins who married one another. One couple knew the potential problems and they never had children. Two of the sweetest people I have ever known. They were married for 60 years and died within a year of each other.

It's not right, and the French have proved it. We are all related in some way when you really look at the situation. So I think the question should be: How far up the family tree should one go to make sure there isn't a problem before getting married? I am related to my wife, but the connection is eight generations back, and that's subject to clarification.


Marisa Brook
Posted 05 June 2012 at 01:10 pm

Most of my sources suggest that the increased risk of birth-defects for offspring of a pair of full first cousins is about 3% higher than it is for unrelated parents, It's only with immediate family-members (siblings, parents) that the numbers climb into the double-digit range. 3% is still enough for a bit of concern, but it's also not catastrophic (unless certain illnesses and/or conditions run in the family). Even Charles Darwin married one of his first cousins, though not without a lot of consideration beforehand.

What I've heard is that you have about as much in common genetically with a third-cousin (someone you share a pair of great-great-grandparents with) as with any random unrelated person. Third-cousins have a tenuous enough familial relationship that the vast majority of their genetic material isn't shared; it's less than 1% assuming no inbreeding or double-cousin marriages (for instance, when a set of sisters marries a set of brothers - their kids will be first-cousins on both sides, and will share the same four grandparents, meaning that they will have more in common genetically than most first cousins do).


Fishrock
Posted 05 June 2012 at 11:37 pm

Fascinating (and squirm-inducing) topic! It makes me wonder about the Minnesota Twin study...where twins who had been adopted into different families were compared, and in many cases, reunited. The most interesting tidbit of this article was the Westermarck effect at work in people having incestuous relationships! I can't get over that irony!

(Not comfortable with the depiction of the Osmonds. Seems like the Lannisters would have gone better in that spot.)

Nevertheless, this was one of those articles that blew my mind...a classic effect of reading this site, but absent for a long while. Thank you, Ms. Brook & Mr. Bellows!


lailabaila
Posted 10 June 2012 at 06:11 pm

Fishrock said: "Fascinating (and squirm-inducing) topic! It makes me wonder about the Minnesota Twin study…where twins who had been adopted into different families were compared, and in many cases, reunited. The most interesting tidbit of this article was the Westermarck effect at work in people having incestuous relationships! I can’t get over that irony!

(Not comfortable with the depiction of the Osmonds. Seems like the Lannisters would have gone better in that spot.)
Nevertheless, this was one of those articles that blew my mind…a classic effect of reading this site, but absent for a long while. Thank you, Ms. Brook & Mr. Bellows!"

LOL Lannisters!! But that would have gone against the Westermarck effect because the two were together since birth...
Very strange, interesting article.


Silverhill
Posted 20 June 2012 at 12:16 am

The desire to avoid genetic similarity is seen also in the attraction felt by various people for persons from a strongly different gene pool (white/black, black/Asian, etc.).


Imhotep32
Posted 05 August 2012 at 03:22 pm

If we're to believe the Bible, then our entire species was conceived in incest. So much for the moral high ground.


not a good time
Posted 09 December 2013 at 02:41 pm

I had no idea about GSA and it has tortured me since reunion. I keep waiting and waiting for it to pass. It's insane. The mental connection is the hardest part.


dave
Posted 21 December 2013 at 05:23 pm

I can say this, I was raised by grandparents.I went to live with my mom at 16. To think of sexual relations with my grandma is unthinkable, but with my mom I i have. I've wondered why, now I understand. I never mentioned this to my mom, now deceased. It has been a source of concern. I'm glad i understand the reason.


Yochanan
Posted 15 January 2014 at 05:47 pm

" Some Israeli citizens live in communal homesteads named kibbutzes (or kibbutzim in Hebrew). "

FYI, Kibbutzim were way more popular in the early and mid 20th Century than they are now.


MugaSofer
Posted 04 May 2014 at 05:15 am

charles darnay said: "What does "They are even debout christians" mean? What does that have to do with anything??"

Well, it's a fairly "normal" thing to be.


Want to get over it
Posted 08 October 2014 at 01:46 pm

not a good time said: "I had no idea about GSA and it has tortured me since reunion. I keep waiting and waiting for it to pass. It's insane. The mental connection is the hardest part."

I am having the same problem. Are you over it yet? Is it mutual? I think it might be for us but we have only danced around the subject- -we are both married. The mental connection is incredible. Sometimes I think it might be better for my piece of mind to cut it off completely.


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