Human Nature

, Volume 27, Issue 4, pp 533–555 | Cite as

Disgust, Gender, and Social Change

Testing Alternative Explanations for the Decline of Cousin Marriage in Karo Society
  • Geoff Kushnick
  • Daniel M. T. Fessler
  • Fikarwin Zuska


Among the Karo of Indonesia, the frequency of matrilateral cross-cousin (impal) marriage has declined in recent decades. We conducted a vignette experiment to assess the contributions of a handful of factors in shaping this pattern. Surprisingly, we found that cosocialization of a hypothetical woman with her impal led to increased judgments of marriage likelihood and decreased feelings of disgust in male and female respondents (n = 154). We also found that females, more than males, judged impal marriage more likely when there were practical advantages. Finally, we found that younger men expressed more disgust in response to impal marriages than did older men, while women displayed an opposite but weaker reaction. This suggests the existence of gender-specific changes in attitudes toward the practice, indicating that a full understanding may require the application of sexual conflict theory. Our study illustrates the potential utility—and limitations—of vignette experiments for studying social change.


Karo Batak Social change Cousin marriage Westermarck hypothesis Disgust Sexual conflict 



We thank our many Karo participants. The study would not have been possible without the hard work of research assistants Karmila Kaban, Iksan Ginting, and Lasma Sinaga. The fieldwork described in this paper was supported by grants from the Fulbright Scholars Program and the American Institute for Indonesian Studies awarded to GK. The archival portion of our project was funded by a grant to DF from UCLA’s Center for Culture, Brain, and Development. Research permission was granted by Indonesia’s Ministry of Research and Technology (RISTEK), Jakarta. Human subjects approval was granted by the Human Subjects Office at the University of Washington, Seattle (with approval to use those permissions from the Ethics Office at The Australian National University, Canberra). All participants provided informed consent before being enrolled in the study.

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Geoff Kushnick
    • 1
  • Daniel M. T. Fessler
    • 2
  • Fikarwin Zuska
    • 3
  1. 1.School of Archaeology and AnthropologyThe Australian National UniversityCanberraAustralia
  2. 2.Center for Behavior, Evolution, & Culture, and Department of AnthropologyUniversity of California, Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA
  3. 3.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of North SumatraMedanIndonesia

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