Anthropologist and best-selling author Helen Fisher sums up the eternal question in the title of her new book, Why Him? Why Her? (Henry Holt). It goes like this: You strike up a conversation with someone you’ve never met before, and whether you admit it to yourself or not, after two minutes or so, you know: You’re attracted to him or you’re not. If you’re single, you’re intrigued; if you’re happily involved with someone, you’re… careful.
Fisher says she knows exactly what’s going on here. While long-term compatibility depends a lot on factors like status and life history, what causes the sparks to fly, or not, during that first conversation is how well your personality types match up. Maybe that doesn’t sound terribly scientific’but Fisher begs to differ. After sifting through an enormous pile of research literature, she concludes that four chemicals play leading roles in determining who we are and who we’re drawn to: two sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen; and two neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin.
In Fisher’s last book, Why We Love (2004), she broadly sketched out the influence of these molecules on our romantic lives. In Why Him? Why Her? she uses them as building blocks to construct four distinct personality types. The Explorer, defined by high dopamine activity, is adventurous, novelty-seeking, creative. The Builder, with high serotonin activity, is cautious, conventional, managerial. The Director, pumped up with testosterone, is aggressive, single-minded, analytical. The Negotiator, more estrogen-influenced, is empathetic, idealistic, a big-picture thinker.
The love laboratory where Fisher has conducted her research is Chemistry.com, an affiliate of Match.com, the largest dating service online. She formulated an elaborate questionnaire (which is included in her book) to help clients figure out their personality type. Then they began choosing whom they’d most like to date from a list of candidates sent to them, and as the service evolved, subsequent clients received lists of dating prospects weighted in favor of their theoretically preferred personality type. And so Fisher had a mass experiment for her theories about personality and romantic attraction.
Not exactly research science as usual. But mainstream academics have been studying the effects of personality on romantic choice for decades, and all we have to show for it are two pieces of conventional’and diametrically opposed’-wisdom: ‘Opposites attract’ and ‘Like attracts like.’ Fisher, however, has crunched the numbers and, as she tells me over lunch, she’s got it all figured out.
ELLE: Isn’t there something discomforting about reducing everyone to four personality types based on the chemicals running through them, and then predicting who we’ll be attracted to?
HELEN FISHER: Honey, everything is chemical. Everything is physical, and if you want, everything is spiritual. My answer is this: You can know every single ingredient in a piece of chocolate cake and still sit down and eat it and feel the joy. You can know every note in Beethoven’s Ninth and listen to it and reel with the pleasure. To me, understanding the system expands my wonder. In the wild, all animals are attracted to some other animals and really uninterested in or repelled by others’too old, too young, too scruffy. With the evolution of humanity, it became more refined and more profound and led to a phenomenon we call romantic love.
ELLE: You’re trying to make the dating process more efficient?
HF: Right. The finest selective device is your brain. But we’re trying to do some preselecting so you don’t have to kiss a lot of frogs.
ELLE: Isn’t there something to be said for letting people make their own mistakes?
HF: People will always make their own mistakes. What I hope to do is enable us to make fewer of them and to understand that sometimes human nature is working against us. Sometimes we fall in love with somebody who will probably never love us, for reasons having nothing to do with us but with their own mind-set, their chemistry. There’s no way anybody is going to get this perfect, and anybody who tells you they can is a fool. But we can understand something about temperament’that’s what I’m responsible for.
ELLE: How did a nice academic like you get involved with an online dating company?
HF: Chemistry.com invited me to their offices and asked me, ‘Why do you fall in love with one person rather than another?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know. Nobody knows.’ We’ve known for a long time that you tend to fall in love with someone from your own socio-economic background, the same general level of intelligence, of good looks. But you can walk into a room where everybody meets those requirements, and you don’t fall in love with all of them! There’s a huge world of personality out there. One meta study of 470 personality studies ended up concluding that we simply don’t know the role of personality. So I went home and pulled out a blank sheet of paper. I wrote dopamine on the top of the page, and I took out another sheet of paper and wrote serotonin. And so on.
ELLE: You must have had a pretty clear idea about these four personality types before you created the questionnaire.
HF: The data was out there. It just wasn’t pulled together. So in the questionnaire, I had questions that would tell me whether I was measuring what I thought I was’dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, estrogen. For instance, I asked which is longer, your index finger or your ring finger. It’s established that when a lot of testosterone washes over a fetus’ brain, it makes for a longer fourth finger than second finger. We found the people who scored as Directors had that longer fourth finger. And when we ask, ‘Do you find the right word rapidly?’ Directors say no and Negotiators say yes. There’s so much data connecting linguistic skills with estrogen. In the middle of the menstrual cycle, women find the right word even faster. When I did a word study of 178,000 people on Chemistry.com, I found out the top words the four types use. For the Explorer, it’s adventure. For the Builder, it’s family. For the Director, it’s intelligence. The top word for the Negotiator is passion. I’ve been able to validate these personality types over and over.
ELLE: Really’this has changed the way you see the world?
HF: Dramatically. I understand red states and blue states. The Builders live in the suburbs and in the countryside. They want grass and neighborhoods and to be part of the PTA. That’s the serotonin. The Explorers want the stimulation and the novelty of the big city. That’s the dopamine. I think Obama is an Explorer. He’s got charm, and the Explorer has charm to kill. The high-dopamine type is comfortable in his own skin. Look at the way Obama moves. It’s beautiful. And McCain is an aggressive, high-testosterone Director. I saw a photograph of McCain and noticed that his fourth finger is much longer than his second. Directors are who they are.
ELLE: But what type you are is only half the story. We also want to know who we’re going to be attracted to. I love that you couldn’t guess the results beforehand. You discovered the two clich’s, ‘Like attracts like’ and ‘Opposites attract,’ are each true about half the time. Explorers are drawn to Explorers, and Builders to Builders, but that Directors are attracted to Negotiators, and vice versa.
HF: Of course, it enchants me’why does nature select these patterns? It’s easy to explain why Builders go for each other. They’re not going to tolerate the other types. They’re both traditional, managerial. These are the 50-year marriages. They’re going to have five children. That’s easy to explain from a Darwinian perspective. I can also see why the Negotiator and the Director go for each other. They need each other’s skills. The indecisive need the decisive. The tough-minded need the tenderhearted.
ELLE: That’s the clich’. The gruff, self-absorbed husband and the nurturing, charming wife guiding him’sort of like Oprah and Dr. Phil before he got his own show.
HF: But don’t forget about Director women and Negotiator men. What I find curious from an evolutionary standpoint is the attraction between Explorers. Who’s going to take care of the baby if they’re both on their way up Mount Everest, or in the bar taking drugs, or in the library reading Spinoza? But people who express a lot of dopamine, the sensation seekers, tend to marry more often. I began to see a different Darwinian strategy’different babies with different partners. That’s very adaptive, because they’re creating more genetic variety in their young.
ELLE: How about the matches that are statistically less likely: Builder-Explorer or Director-Builder? Are they doomed?
HF: No. All 10 combinations can work. They can all be superb, as long as the partners continue to respect each other.
ELLE: You are that rare academic who feels comfortable giving romantic advice in print. Have you been drummed out of the corps?
HF: [Laughs] Not yet. I expect to be, but my peers have been extremely pleasant to me. They say, ‘Oh, you’re working with a dating site.’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I’m studying 7 million people.’ And they stop. Cold. Because in academic research, 500 people is a big sample. And I’m also in the middle of a research project that has nothing to do with Chemistry.com. We get the study subjects to take my personality-type test, and then we measure their testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, and serotonin levels. Still, maybe some people will jump on me about the romantic advice. But I’ve always felt that science should be used.
ELLE: Some good, all-purpose advice?
HF: In the book, I say, ‘You want to get along with a Director? Ask him what he thinks. You want to get along with an Explorer? Ask him what he does. You want to get along with a Builder? Ask him who he knows. And you want to get along with a Negotiator? Ask him how he feels.’ It sounds pigeonholing, but we have personalities that evolved for good reasons. We’re subtle and flexible’but not that subtle and flexible. At the end, I have a chapter on mind mates, soul mates. For example, Negotiators really need intimacy, and they have a certain definition of what it is’face-to-face talk about how you feel. I can’t get that from my Director friends. Or even my Explorer friends. I asked a man I was going out with, ‘What is intimacy to you?’ He said, ‘Reading in bed at night to you.’ So I have to train myself to realize that he’s giving me intimacy even though I don’t feel it. I like it when he reads to me in bed at night, but that’s not my intimacy. You ask me what we’re supposed to get out of this. Are we just giving the biology of these types? No’we’re trying to give tools so you can reach people.
ELLE: So in the singles bar of the future, will someone be saying, ‘What’s your type? I bet you’re an Explorer.’
HF: I think so. I do.
Side note: ‘For the Explorer, the word is adventure. For the Builder, it’s family. For the Director, it’s intelligence. And for the Negotiator, it’s passion.’