Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Oedipus Complex, Mate Choice, Imprinting; an Evolutionary Reconsideration of a Freudian Concept Based on Empirical Studies

Academic journal article Mankind Quarterly

Oedipus Complex, Mate Choice, Imprinting; an Evolutionary Reconsideration of a Freudian Concept Based on Empirical Studies

Article excerpt

Freud's assumption that the Oedipal relationship plays an important part in shaping the future character of mate choice needs a scientific reconsideration that, in turn, requires setting an empirically testable explanation. The authors hypothesize that the close physical and emotional attachment between the mother and her son includes a sexual imprinting-like mechanism that influences the processing of childhood experiences. Here they present a set of experiments showing that adults prefer long-term partners who resemble the mental representation of their parent of the opposite sex. Furthermore, mating preferences were found to be shaped in the process of attachment; those mothers were most frequently used as mental models for their sons' mate choice who provided more emotional warmth and less avoidance to their sons during childhood. The implications of the study's results for the contemporary interpretation of Freudian theory are discussed.

Key Words: Oedipal relationship; Mate preferences; Evolutionary psychology.

Freud's theory

It is well known that the Oedipus complex plays a pivotal role in Sigmund Freud's theory. This complex characterizes the early stage (between 3-5 years) of boys' sexual objectchoice (Freud, 1905, 1938). During this period, boys have sexual feelings towards their mother, while they are jealous of their father and consider him a rival party. In Freudian theory, boys at this age have a primary incestuous urge towards their mother while they feel fear and anxiety toward the father because they suppose that the father would punish their forbidden sexual impulses. Freud claims that boys are gradually able to overcome their incestuous urges and fantasies, free themselves from parental authority, and individualize in a psychological sense. However, there are a number of "fixation points" in this process which often serve as the bases of psychoneuroses. In many of his works, Freud analyzes such cases, demonstrating that any inability to detach from the mother as a sexual object can lead to the development of a pathological personality.

Freud formulated his theory of the Oedipus complex based on his own clinical experience as he found that it could explain the developing processes of disorders of psychosexual development (Daly & Wilson, 1990). However, he never made direct observations of children in order to verify his theory, and developmental psychologists have not really found support for the classical Oedipal theory from their studies of children (Daly & Wilson, 1990; Kupfersmid, 1995).

Soon, in his substantial work Totem and Taboo (Freud, 1913), the theory was expanded into a fundamental explanatory principle involving the entire human race. This was necessary as Freud was looking for scientific support for the existence of human instinctive drives as ontological reality. When he realized that the psychic processes he described (including the Oedipus complex) could not be anchored to neural structures as the scientific development of his age did not permit that, he looked for other foundations (Grünbaum, 1984). He thought to have found a phylogenetic (prehistoric) event to explain sexual development in childhood. His central idea was that incest between a mother and her prepubertal son (and conflict between father and son) really occurred in our evolutionary past, and he hypothesized that the imprints of this Oedipal sin still appear in the course of an individual's life even in contemporary societies. As is well known, Franck Sulloway (1983) described this period during which Freud turned from proximate (neural) analyses to ultimate (evolutionary) explanations.

This renewed effort towards the empirical demonstrates Freud's theoretical flexibility and scientific commitment (MacDonald, 1986). However, his evolutionary scenario involved mostly speculative and arbitrary explanations (Spain, 1987; Sulloway, 1983). As a cornerstone of his theory, Freud created an anthropological-evolutionary narrative which has not been supported by empirical evidence. …

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