When the Heart Says Yes, but the Brain Says Listen to Your Serotonin

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Helen Fisher, the Rutgers University anthropologist who studies the biology and evolutionary purpose of romantic love, was in town recently, and we spoke with her about her theory that humans generally fit into four biologically influenced personality types.

Fisher believes the activities of certain chemicals in the brain help determine whether one is -- for instance -- a risk-taking Explorer (dopamine) or a staid and careful Builder (serotonin). In her relatively new gig as "chief scientific adviser" for a dating Web site, Fisher has developed a 56-question survey she says can help determine someone's type and whom that person will fall for. Fisher also spoke about something called the "sweaty-T-shirt experiment" (which we won't get into here) and Hillary Clinton's testosterone (which we will).

-- Libby Copeland

So, Hillary Clinton . . . ?

A total Director, I think. Who's married to a total Negotiator.

What chemicals do the Negotiator and the Director correlate to?

The Director is the high-testosterone type.

They're direct, they're decisive. They're tough-minded, they're competitive. . . . They have poorer people skills, which you would expect. And very fine spatial skills.

The Negotiator is associated with estrogen.

The characteristics associated with estrogen are, first of all, verbal skills. I mean, we know that. A women's ability to find the right word rapidly goes up in the middle of the menstrual cycle when estrogen levels peak. . . . It's not just women, though. Men can have a lot of estrogen and be very much of a man.

Hillary's a Director -- which suggests she has a high testosterone level? Is that possible for a woman?

Oh, yes, absolutely. You can be very high in testosterone and estrogen. Sure. As a matter of fact, there's all kinds of studies that show that higher-testosterone women tend to be less interested in home and family; they move into competitive businesses.

And Bill Clinton? You said he is --

Oh, I think he is an absolute cream-puff Negotiator. I mean, 'I feel your pain'? That was a famous statement, 'I feel your pain.' Only a Negotiator is going to tell you that. He wants desperately to be liked by everybody. There's quite a bit of nuance to him. He can't stop talking.

And you said that Negotiators and Directors tend to go together?

I've looked at 28,000 people on Chemistry.com, on the dating site. . . . Negotiators choose Directors and Directors choose Negotiators. It's quite staggering.

I think the reason is that they need each other's skills, and I think you can see this in Hillary and Bill. For example, the Director really needs the warmth and the nurturing and the people skills of the Negotiator. The Negotiator needs the decisiveness, the ambitiousness.

I think you mentioned in our earlier conversation that you had looked into Obama as well.

My hypothesis is -- and I hope you put these down as hypotheses -- that he is an Explorer. And I think the secondary type might actually be a Negotiator. I'm not quite sure. He has an energy level that you almost can feel and he has an optimism that is very much the Explorer. He's very daring -- I mean, gosh, look where he started out in life and look how far he's come.

Now, John F. Kennedy was very definitely an Explorer.

What about the other ones? What do they correlate to?

People who express a lot of activity in the serotonin system I call the Builder.

Colin Powell's got every trait of the Builder. Cautious but not fearful, religious, very traditional, really respects authority, loyal, very managerial, respected the hierarchy -- I mean, just the perfect general. And loyal. He was loyal to Bush even though it's hard to believe the man would ever have personally chosen to go into Iraq.

Am I correct that you've said that George W. Bush is also a Builder?

He's a combination of the Builder and the Director. But, I mean, his stubbornness is the Builder. The conventionality is the Builder. The rigidity is the Builder.

Are you able, incidentally, to check your theory of someone's type against their blood work?

I keep on perfecting the test. Every few weeks I look over the answers to all the questions. I see what questions are not working.

As soon as I get the test right, I will take 200 people and give them the test and also take blood, saliva and urine and see if I can validate the test that way.

So if I may ask -- last question -- who do you go for?

Unfortunately, Explorers just like myself. And I've been burned a million times.

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