Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology

, Volume 65, Issue 5, pp 859–873

The role of sexual imprinting and the Westermarck effect in mate choice in humans



Positive sexual imprinting is a process by which individuals use the phenotype of their opposite-sex parent as a template for choosing mates and is suggested to play an important role in human mate choice. In contrast, negative imprinting, or “The Westermarck Effect”, is characterized by individuals developing a strong sexual aversion to others with whom they lived closely in infancy and early childhood. In this review, we evaluate the literature on their effects on mate choice in humans. We find little evidence to support positive imprinting in humans because the studies either have serious design flaws, do not exclude effects of heritable mating preferences, or do not account for several possible alternative explanations. Instead, it seems that the opposite phenomenon, negative sexual imprinting, has some support from natural experiments which have found that individuals avoid mating with those with whom they lived closely in infancy and early childhood. However, it seems that early association does not produce a strong-enough aversion to completely annihilate sexual desire, probably because the mind uses multiple kinship cues to regulate inbreeding avoidance. Thus, it appears that the evidence for both types of imprinting is fairly weak in humans. Thus, more studies are needed to test the role of sexual imprinting on mate choice in humans, especially those measuring interactions between positive and negative imprinting.


Assortative mating Evolved mating preferences Freud Homo sapiens Homogamy Incest avoidance Imprinting Partner similarity Phenotype matching Sexual selection Westermarck 

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Section of Ecology, Department of BiologyUniversity of TurkuTurkuFinland

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