Human Nature

, Volume 11, Issue 1, pp 65-91

First online:

Olfactory sexual inhibition and the westermarck effect

  • Mark A. SchneiderAffiliated withDepartment of Sociology, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale Email author 
  • , Lewellyn HendrixAffiliated withDepartment of Sociology, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale

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The Westermarck effect (sexual inhibition among individuals raised together) is argued to be mediated olfactorily. Various animals, including humans, distinguish among individuals by scent (significantly determined by MHC genotype), and some avoid cosocialized associates on this basis. Possible models of olfactory mechanisms in humans are evaluated. Evidence suggests aversions develop during an early sensitizing period, attach to persons as much as to their scents, and are more powerful among females than among males. Adult to child aversions may develop similarly, but more likely result from stimulus generalization. This hypothesis accords with current evidence and yields testable predictions (e.g., anosmia will prevent inhibition) that, should they be supported, will conclusively ground the Westermarck effect in a biological mechanism.

Key words

Biosocial Inbreeding Incest Kin recognition Major histocompatibility complex Olfaction Sexual abuse Sexual inhibition Westermarck effect