Monday, April 25, 2011

Freud was right about us... (in one way at least)

Attractive woman or unconscious genetic similarity? (source)
Sigmund Freud is among the prominent names in psychology, and yet, most researchers would agree that his theories—though grand and fascinating—tend to be on the non-scientific end of the spectrum. That is, they were difficult to test empirically, and eventually lost favor in the field as a result. One aspect of Freud’s work was absolutely true though, and I’d like to focus on that today.

Freud’s psychodynamic approach to therapy involved (and I’m paraphrasing) getting the patient to re-experience the problems s/he had as a child, with the therapist. This process, known as transference—because the feelings and wishes the patient has about his or her parents are transferred onto the therapist—was what allowed the patient to make psychological progress toward greater well-being. In essence, going through the things that made you very unhappy as a child, as a fully-functioning adult that solves problems regularly, should help you feel better. 

Freud’s transference is absolutely real and recent research bears this out.
Transference? (source)

Essentially, transference refers to any situation in which you take what you know about a significant person in your life (e.g., parents, close friends, romantic partners, etc…) and apply that knowledge onto a new person. That is, you meet a person who looks, acts, or just seems like your best friend, and as a result, you begin to feel the way you do around your best friend, with this new person: If your best friend likes tennis, you’d expect the new person to also like tennis. If your best friend studies electrical engineering, you’d have a strong hunch that this new person was also an engineer. We’ve all had the experience of transference:

Ever met someone who seemed familiar to you? That’s transference working it’s magic.

Ever wonder why you pick a favorite character in a book/movie? Transference.

Ever think about the striking similarities between your romantic partner and your mom/dad? Transference again.

This last statement bears some extra attention. We know from recent research that transference occurs automatically, unconsciously, and does so even based on the subtlest similarities between a new person and one’s significant other. For example, Serena Chen and I have done research wherein simple facial feature similarity between a new person and a significant other leads participants to feel toward the new person as if they were the significant other (i.e., you look like my mother, so I like you because I like my mother). Does this research mean that initial physical attraction—based partially on impressions made about others’ physical features—is based on transference? Possibly.

Chris Fraley, a colleague of mine at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign conducted a study in 2010 wherein he asked people to rate the attractiveness of faces that were morphed to be similar to one’s own face—in essence, the morphing is a proxy for similarity to one’s genetic relatives (e.g., parents, siblings). Participants tended to judge the faces that were more similar to their own face—that is, more genetically similar to their parents and siblings—as more attractive, aligning with research on transference. However, these faces were judged more attractive only when genetic similarity was manipulated unconsciously. When told that the faces were being morphed, and that the morphing was increasing genetic similarity to relatives, participants reacted negatively—as you might expect given our taboos regarding incest—and said they were no longer attracted to the genetically similar faces.
picture source

Taken together, recent research based on Freud's theories of transference suggest that (1) romantic attraction may originate, in part, from transference due to facial feature similarity, and (2) attraction to genetically-similar faces happens outside of conscious awareness. In some ways, Freud was right about us!

Do you see similarities between your significant other and your parents? I'd love to hear some stories about transference in the comments!


Fraley RC, & Marks MJ (2010). Westermarck, Freud, and the incest taboo: does familial resemblance activate sexual attraction? Personality & social psychology bulletin, 36 (9), 1202-12 PMID: 20647594


  1. I don't necessarily "see" my parents in my boyfriend. However, it was about a year ago when I realized that the similarities between myself and his mother. We both have thick brown hair, brown eyes, both played tennis competitively, etc. Although our personalities are quite different, reading your article made me understand the reasoning behind it. And it makes sense, because from what I've heard, as a child, my boyfriend would only let one person hold him - his mom, and boy, did he love her.

  2. Thanks Dana, great comment! The rest of our readers are shy, but I guarantee that your story is similar to that of many others. I should point out that it isn't that transference is the only reason for a relationship with another person, it just may give someone that extra push right at the start of a relationship, to get to know someone more. After that point, compatibility will take over. Thanks for reading!