Are You More Attracted To Guys Who Look Like Your Dad? A Human Sexuality Professor Explains Why
Whether you learned it in Psych 101 or you heard it referenced jokingly on a TV sitcom, the idea that you may be more attracted to guys who look like your dad is not a new one. The concept stems from Sigmund Freud's Oedipus complex, coined in 1899 and named for the mythical Greek king who unknowingly killed his father and married his mother. Carl Jung coined the parallel phenomenon the Electra complex in 1913 to describe when a woman feels a sense of competition with her mother for her father's affections, named after the mythical female figure who helped kill her mother.
If you notice that you gravitate toward guys who somewhat physically resemble your dad, you shouldn't feel ashamed. Attraction is complex, and there is a lot of data out there that proves you're not alone.
There are a few different theories as to why this happens, so to better understand the science behind why women are more attracted to men who look or act like their fathers, I spoke to two experts in human development and sexuality.
"The idea that women are attracted to men who resemble their fathers came from Freud over a hundred years ago, but like many of his theories, there isn't much scientific data to support the idea of the Oedipus complex," says Michael McGee, Ph.D., M.Ed. and Assistant Professor of Health Education at Borough of Manhattan Community College. He explains that scientific literature does suggest women are attracted to those who resemble their own kin, but not too closely.
Researchers don't yet know exactly how this phenomenon affects the quality or longevity of romantic relationships, says Sarah Merrill, Ph.D. Human Development at Cornell University. "Hopefully future studies will elucidate if this is problematic, helpful, or if it even matters at all," she says. McGee agrees that while this is an interesting area of study, "there are lots of contradictions within it."
With the help of these two academic experts, I've broken down some of the current research. Here's what you should know about whether or not the Oedipus (or Electra) complex can actually be backed up by more recent scientific data.
Evolution plays a role.
A 2003 American Psychological Association study conducted by researchers Little, Penton-Voak, Burt, and Perrett showed women are often attracted to men who have the same eye and hair color as their fathers. "Among evolutionary biologists there is the belief that we have evolved to recognize someone similar to us as a desirable mate because their genetic makeup would increase the likelihood that such a couple would successfully procreate," says McGee. "But the male and female should not be too closely related because they would produce less healthy children."
Learning-based theories (AKA theories based on the idea that changes in behavior happen as a response to stimuli) predict that parents do play a role in shaping who their offspring choose to mate with, through something called sexual imprinting. This is a process in which preferences for a desirable mate are learned through early interactions during childhood. And no, It wasn't invented by the author of Twilight.
Merrill cites the Westermark Effect as evidence of "reverse sexual imprinting, presumably to avoid incestuous pairings." This is an effect where living together with someone during the critical period of zero to six years old will result in not finding that person sexually attractive. Basically, it argues the opposite of Freud's theory.
It may be more about familiarity than physical attraction.
"[Sexual imprinting] may be driven by the mere exposure effect, which states we develop a preference for something through having it be familiar and presented often," says Merrill. So this "attraction" could more accurately be called trust.
"In a  study where they subtly manipulated photographs of male faces so that they resembled female study participants' faces (presumably making them look like the women's father), they found that the women in the study said they trusted the men whose faces resembled their own more than other faces; but they did not find them any more or less attractive as a potential husband, and in fact found them less attractive as a short- term sexual partner," says McGee.
He explains that familiarity, like the kind you tend to have with a family member, makes intimacy easier. People tend to feel closer to those who understand them, and to be more attracted to those who are "like" them and share their values. This extends to socioeconomic status, race, education, religion, and more.
Individual preferences are only half of the equation.
There is more recent research that does back up the physical attraction theory. A 2017 study surveyed 2,611 women and found that 15.5 percent of them reported attraction to people who exhibited physical characteristics similar to their fathers. This is a relatively small percentage, though, and it also doesn't tell the whole story.
"When it comes to partner preferences, universal preferences (like symmetrical features, good health, kindness) and idiosyncratic preferences (like someone who has tattoos, is a redhead, or loves dogs) are of about equal importance in the judgment of a potential partner's attractiveness," says Merrill. Preferring someone who has similar physical features to your father falls under the idiosyncratic (or individual) preference category. Universally appealing features will always affect who you find attractive, so it's important to also factor that into the equation.
More parental affection can lead to more positive associations.
"Assortative mating theory states that because the three main factors in who we end up in a relationship with are familiarity, similarity, and propinquity (who is in your proximity and available), we tend to select partners like ourselves," says Merrill. "Because we are raised by, and the genetic products of, our parents, we are similar to them, and thus romantic partners tend to be similar to both you and your parents. This is also called homogamy."
Plus, having an involved father and/or parents who are affectionate toward each other can lead to a greater likelihood of imprinting on your father, according to the 2017 study. Interestingly, "the likelihood of women imprinting on mothers increased when parents divorced or separated and there was a remarriage," according to Merrill. And in her own work, she found that increased paternal investment also increased a daughter's feelings of similarity to her father, regardless of their actual biological relatedness. Her study was done with both adopted and biological children.
There are a number of theories about why women choose mates who resemble their fathers, but overall, it seems to be more about physical traits than personality or behavioral characteristics. So if you find yourself attracted to a guy who kind of looks like your dad, don't freak out. It's not gross. It all comes down to evolution.