Behavioral Oedipus

When thinking about differences in general Psychology and ABA, I am often reminded that the concepts, terms, and ideas people hold onto the most are not behaviorally sound. One of these is the idea of the Oedipus Complex. It is a Freudian theory based on the Sophocles play in which a son marries his mother (that’s not the primary focus of the play, and they didn’t know they were mother and son, … you have to either read it or Google it). Psychologically, it is explained as psycho-sexual stage of development, based on a child’s desire to idolize their father in order to obtain a woman like their mother. Behaviorally, this attempted explanation of private events (i.e., thoughts and emotions) is unsound and cannot be objectively studied. It made me think of a behaviorally based theories. Which leads to a theory I propose, which I am calling either the “Reverse Oedipus Complex” or the “Behavioral Oedipus Complex”. Before I can explain my theory, I must first explain the Freduian Oedipus Complex.


Sophocles vs Freud


Oedipus Rex by Sophocles (Short Summary)

  • Oedipus is the son of Laius and Jocasta, King and Queen of Thebes (Biological Parents)
  • Oedipus was abandoned, had his ankles pierced to prevent being able to crawl or help himself, and left to die as a baby in the mountains by his biological father, because he was given a prophecy that his son would kill him and marry his wife.
  • Oedipus was eventually adopted by the childless King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth (Adopted Parents), after being brought to them by the mountain shepherd that saved his life.
  • Oedipus later discovered the prophecy regarding his future – that he would kill his father and marry his mother. In fear and disgust, Oedipus fled Corinth.
  • Oedipus randomly crossed paths with his biological father at a narrow crossroad. An argument occurred with the chariot driver of Laius (biological dad) over who had the right to go first, resulting in Oedipus killing both of them. He did not know he had just killed the King or that it was his biological father.
  • Oedipus wandered towards the city of Thebes where he encountered the monstrous gate-guarding Sphinx. He solved her riddle, resulting in the Sphinx going mad and hurling herself to her death.
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  • Oedipus was offered the vacant throne of Thebes as a reward for saving the city, and the hand in marriage of the widowed Queen (his biological mother Jocasta).
    • This reward was established prior to Oedipus encountering the Sphinx, by the Queen’s brother to anyone who could kill the Sphinx, to fill the vacant throne.
  • They had four children together (Polynices, Eteocles, Antigone, and Ismene), before discovering the truth that Oedipus was not the biological son of the King and Queen of Merope, Jocasta’s his biological mother, and that he murdered his biological father. As a result, Jocasta hung herself, and Oedipus gouged his eyes with two pins snatched from her regal dress.

Oedipus Complex by Sigmund Freud

During the Phallic stage (ages 3-6) of Freud’s Psycho-sexual Stages of Development, a boy (male child) become unconsciously sexually attached to his mother, and hostile (envious & jealous) towards his father, who he views as a rival for his mother’s affections. This leads to fantasies of the son getting rid of the father, and taking his place with the mother. This then leads to castration anxiety – a fear that the father will castrate the son as punishment. To cope with this anxiety, the son begins to identify with his father by manifesting the father’s attitudes, characteristics, and values that his father holds (e.g. personality, gender role, behaviors, etc.). This turns the father into a role model, instead of a rival. Through this transition, boys acquire their superego and the male gender roles. Boys then substitute their desire for his mother with a desire for other women.


Oedipus complex, in psychoanalytic theory, a desire for sexual involvement with the parent of the opposite sex and a concomitant sense of rivalry with the parent of the same sex; a crucial stage in the normal developmental process.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica

Behavioral Oedipus Complex

Often times the Oedipus Complex is brought up as a Psychological fact. It is my assertion, based on the rules of behavior, that the Oedipus Complex is functionally wrong. It is not that children grow up wanting to marry and be with their parents, but they do seek the lost reinforcement of their parents’ behaviors, and they do seek out those that can offer functionally appropriate replacement behaviors. This is based on the behaviors of the parents, which can be misguided and borderline inappropriate responses, directed towards their children.

First, let’s get this out of the way. Oedipus Rex by Sophocles is not behavioral or psychological, it is a Greek tragedy based on fate that can not be changed. Basically, it’s as behaviorally sound as an episode of The Twilight Zone. Trying to behaviorally reverse engineer this tale of unalterable fate is nonsensical. The Freudian theory relies on parental sexual attraction to explain behaviors. In this behaviorally based theory, future relationships are not based on the deprivation of sensory-based sexual desires, they are based on attention-based, and secondarily tangible-based, deprivation that results in searching for desirable traits in potential partners that will functionally fulfill the needs left as a void by one’s parents.

Essentially, parents engage in behaviors and responses that shape a child’s behavior to be how they would want their ideal mate to look and behave. Because of this, all behaviors a child emits that are pleasing to the parent are reinforced through attention and access to tangibles. Once a child becomes older and begins to engage in behaviors that are reinforced by their new social circles, the parent removes the previously in-place reinforcers. As the child becomes an adult and seeks a mate, they seek a partner “like their parents”, not due to a sexual attraction or an attraction based on traits they unconsciously admire, but based on an ingrained learning history that teaches them this person is more probable to give them the reinforcers they have been deprived of since their parents extinguished reinforcement. As with any implementation of extinction, behaviors will emit spontaneous recovery, meaning behaviors will suddenly resurface. If those behaviors are reinforced, they behaviors will come back to previous rates. When seeking a life partner, long extinguished reinforcements suddenly reappearing will strengthen an attraction to the person, as they are the oldest learned reinforcers, and have had the longest duration of deprivation. This thinly stretched schedule of reinforcement creates an almost impossible to extinguish intermittent reinforcement cycle. Parents create the contingency that causes a child to grow up desiring a partner like them, due to reinforcing behaviors they seek in their ideal partner.


How this behavior is shaped

Parents engage in behaviors that reinforce a child to look, act, and respond in ways they see as ideal. The concept of a “mommas boy” and “daddy’s little girl” are just different way of saying that Mom wants her son to look, sound, and behave the way she wants, so she reinforces those behaviors, which are based on what she finds appealing in a male. Similarly, Dad will reinforce his daughter looking, sounding, and behaving the way his ideal female would look, sound, and behave.

Behavior of parentImpression on the child
Callin child by a non-age-appropriate nickname
(e.g., Papi, Little Daddy, Little Mama, Daddy’s Lady, etc.)
They seek being placed on a pedestal, frequently seeking partners that provide them with verbal praise frequently and with high quality.
Dressing them in ways they find attractive (clothing in the parents’ favorite color and style)
(e.g., matching outfits, styles they like seeing on significant others – cuffed jeans, short sleeve button shirt, necklace, etc.)
Dress in ways parents find attractive to receive reinforcement for behaviors. Eventually, seeking partners that also reinforce their clothing choices in functionally similar ways (e.g., social praise for attention, gifts from access to tangibles).
Reinforcing behaviors they desire from a partner
(e.g., surprise gifts, verbal praise, etc.)
Child seeks relationships with people that reward those behaviors that the parent previously reinforced.
Examples of ways parents shape a child’s behavior

In summary …

Because parents have a misplaced desire to see their children look, act, and respond in ways that would fit their ideal partner, they reinforce a child to desire a partner that will also reinforce those behaviors. This creates a contingency that, once an adult, if a child can find a partner who provides them with functionally appropriate replacement behaviors, they will be more attracted to them. A child does not naturally and psychologically grow up lusting their parents, they grow up trying to satiate aspects of their lives that have been deprived of reinforcement that their parents created. If a parent does not force this reinforcement upon their child, they will be less likely to desire a “replacement parent” as they grow into adulthood. Children are not looking to replace a parent by behaving like that parent to obtain the other parent. Instead, they grow accustom to attention and tangibles provided by their parents for behaving like the parents’ ideal mate, resulting in them growing up to seek others that will fulfill these functions in their lives. The Oedipus Complex that Freud tries to explain is a learned behavior that results from the parents actions placed upon the child.


The Oedipus Complex that Freud tries to explain is a learned behavior that results from the parent’s actions placed upon the child.

Jonathan Stevens

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