Marrying your ‘parents’

Wednesday 8 January 2003

Psychologists have found that humans select long-term partners who not only look like themselves, but look like their opposite sex parents.

The researchers, at the University of St Andrews, have discovered that men are attracted to women who look like their mothers and women fall for men who resemble their fathers.

The group, led by Dr Tony Little of the University’s Perception Lab, have conducted research which has also shown that humans select partners who remind them of themselves, particularly in relation to traits such as hair and eye colour.

“Research has shown that human partners are more similar than expected by chance on a variety of traits. Our studies examining hair and eye colour have show some evidence of positive assortment which may reflect attraction to self-similar characteristics but is also consistent with attraction to parental traits. We examined the influence that own and parental colour characteristics have on partner-choice”, said Dr Little.

The research, the results of which are published in this week’s ‘Evolution and Human Behaviour’ journal, involved almost 700 volunteers (aged between 18 and 67) answering questions relating to their colouring (eyes, skin and hair) and the colouring of their parents and long-term partners. They were also asked to specify what colour traits their ‘ideal partner’ would have. The volunteers were recruited over the internet, and were presented with various web-based questionnaires.

Dr Little and his team set out to establish whether the colouring of parents influenced choice of partner and found significant correlations between parental characteristics and actual partner characteristics for both men and women, proving that parental colouring has an effect on human partner choice.

In particular, they found that colour traits in opposite-sex parents had more of an effect on partner choice than colour traits in self or the same-sex parent – in other words the subjects were more likely to choose partners who resembled their opposite-sex parent.

The group found that the eye colour of opposite-sex parents significantly affected the choice of partner eye colour in both male and females. They also found that males’ choice of partner hair colour was significantly positively affected by maternal hair colour.

The idea of attraction to the opposite-sex parent’s form has been a popular one since Freud and several other leading psychologists suggested that parental characteristics may influence partner choice.

Other opposite-sex parental characteristics which are thought to affect partner choice are age (it is known that small but significant tendencies occur amongst daughters of older men to choose older partners) and race (previous studies of children of mixed race marriages have found to be more likely to marry someone of the same race as their opposite- sex parent).

“It is a widespread belief that human partners look alike. Positive assortative mating, mating with partners more similar than expected by chance, may result in more stable partnerships and may have genetic benefits, although costs of inbreeding may limit the amount of self- similarity that should be tolerated. Research has shown positive assortment for many physical features, and partners’ faces resemble each other in ways that allow them to be identified as partners at levels above chance,¿ said Dr Little.

The reasons why parental appearance would affect our choice of partner are not clear, but one theory is that humans (and some animals) are attracted to elements which are familiar – or in some way we are ‘imprinted’ with certain familiar characteristics from birth which we are then comfortable with, or attracted to, in the future. Traits such as hair and eye colour are examples of parental characteristics that offspring may ‘learn’ or be imprinted with.

The theory of ‘imprinting’ is also thought to be one reason why individuals have different ideas of what is ‘attractive’. Despite a high degree of agreement over what is and what is not ‘attractive’ throughout the World and different cultures, this learning of parental characteristics may explain some individual differences in opinion about which characteristics are attractive in a partner.



Issued by Beattie Media On behalf of the University of St Andrews Contact Gayle Cook on 01334 467227, mobile 07900 050103, or email [email protected] Ref: Tony Little parent attraction pr 080103 View the latest University news at

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