Dating & Relationships

Are We Sexually Attracted To People Who Remind Us Of Our Parents?

March 27, 2013 by Justin Lehmiller

Research across various animal species suggests that early caregiving experiences shape patterns of sexual attraction later in life. For instance, if you ever took an Introductory Psychology course, you probably learned how Konrad Lorenz discovered that baby geese would “imprint” on the first moving object they saw shortly after birth, meaning they treated that object as if it were their mother [1]. As evidence of this, perhaps your professor showed you some adorable photos of Lorenz being trailed by a gaggle of geese who had imprinted on him. Even more fascinating, however, is that as adults, these geese would attempt to mate with human men that physically resembled Lorenz (i.e., White dudes with big white beards)! So do similar effects occur among humans? Are we sexually attracted to people who physically resemble our early caretakers? According to a new study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, the answer appears to be yes.

In this study, researchers tested whether individuals’ attraction to potential romantic targets depended upon how old their parents were when they were born [2]. To do so, data were collected online from a sample of 2,278 adults. Most participants were from the United States and were 25 years old on average. Participants were first asked to indicate which sex they were more attracted to, and were then presented with 25 faces of either men or women that ranged in age from their 20s to their 70s. Participants then rated how attractive they found each face.

Results indicated that the older an individual’s mother was at the time of birth, the more attracted that person was to older faces. An identical effect was found for father’s age at time of birth. Thus, people who were born to older parents (mother and/or father) tended to report greater attraction to older partners as adults. Importantly, these effects remained even when participant age was statistically controlled. However, it should be emphasized that the effects were relatively small when compared to standardized metrics, meaning that parental age is but a small part of the story when it comes to explaining what people find attractive. In other words, there are a number of other factors that contribute to perceptions of attractiveness beyond what our parents looked like.

A few limitations of this study are worth noting. First, the researchers assessed parental age at birth, but did not inquire about who served as each participant’s primary caretaker(s). The fact that people are often raised by persons other than their biological parents may have diluted the effects somewhat. Second, this study does not tell us why people were attracted to partners who resembled their parents. Is it a result of sexual imprinting a la Lorenz’s geese? Is it a result of mere exposure (i.e., the idea that repeated exposure to a stimulus, such as persons of older age, increases familiarity and liking for that stimulus)? Or is it a result of phenotype-matching (i.e., the idea that we are drawn to partners who physically resemble us—and because we tend to resemble our parents, we also end up with a preference for people who look like our parents)?

Although this study raises almost as many questions as it answers, it does contribute to a growing body of research suggesting that caregiver characteristics may play at least a small role in determining patterns of adult sexual attraction.

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[1] Lorenz, K.Z. (1970). Studies in Animal and Human Behavior, Vol. 1. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

[2] Heffernan, M.E., & Chris Fraley, R. (in press). Do early caregiving experiences shape what people find attractive in adulthood? Evidence from a study on parental age. Journal of Research in Personality.

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Written by
Dr. Justin Lehmiller
Founder & Owner of Sex and Psychology

Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.

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