December 5, 2018
Those of us who still remember the old ditty, “I Want a Girl (Just Like the Girl that Married Dear Old Dad),” may be amused to learn that research finally has proven what we (and the lyricist) knew intuitively: We really are attracted to partners who resemble our parents, according to a recent report by Psychology Today.
A 2017 study by academics in the Czech Republic has found that it’s all based on imprinting—the biological phenomenon that explains why ducklings follow the first individual they encounter after hatching. In normal circumstances, that makes sense because the chicks are likely to spot their mother first.
Past research has shown that heterosexual men and women have a “type” when it comes to hair and eye color, and that the type matches their opposite-sex parent. Of course, many of us have the same hair and eye color as our parents, which is why it’s important to test whether we prefer partners who look more like us or more like our parent: the parent wins out.
We also know that women who grow up with an older father tend to prefer older men themselves, the magazine reported.
Lead researcher Zuzana Štěrbová of the National Institute of Mental Health in Prague, along with her research collaborators, decided to investigate whether our parents’ other physical attributes can influence our preferences in mates. They recruited around 900 people who were attracted to men—including ~750 straight women and ~150 gay men.
Each of the volunteers was shown a grid of comprising images of naked men. The volunteers’ task: to pick out the man whose body looked most like their own (if they were male); most like that of their ideal partner; most like that of their current or most recent partner; and most like that of their father, as they remembered him from childhood.
But the images weren’t chosen randomly, Psychology Today said. They were taken from a textbook published in 1954—The Atlas of Men—which depicts a variety of men’s bodies according to their somatotype. A male body’s somatotype can vary from ectomorphic, to endomorphic, to mesomorphic. In simpler language, a man can be skinny, fat, muscled or any point in between.
Štěrbová found that gay men and straight women didn’t vary in their preferences for men’s bodies. Both men and women preferred a man who was somewhat midway between muscled and skinny, and didn’t prefer a man who was fat.
What about the fathers’ body types? The researchers found that straight women’s ideal partner body shape was similar to the body shape of their fathers. The effect was weak, but present in all three components: endomorphy, ectomorphy, and mesomorphy. Gay men’s ideal partners and their fathers were only similarly skinny.
However, these preferences did not seem to translate into the real-world choice of partners, because the volunteers reported that the bodies of their fathers and their actual partners were neither similar nor dissimilar, the magazine reported.
This could be because we are constrained in our ability to choose our partners: We may have to compromise because our preferred partner doesn’t prefer us, we may value other traits more highly than body shape and so choose a partner based more on those instead, or we may have a limited pool of partners to choose from.
In an important further analysis, the researchers showed that women who reported a good childhood relationship with their father were more likely to express a preference for male bodies that were similar to their fathers’. This makes sense if we think of imprinting as a way of modeling our parents’ choice of partner.
But, if true, it is unclear why there was no such link between the quality of father-child relationship and mate preference in gay men. As the researchers point out, it could be because gay men and lesbians tend to report lower quality relationships with their parents, and it is plausible that for the imprinting-like effect to fully emerge it is necessary that parents and children have a good relationship.
Research contact: @Robert Burriss