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'Why Him" Why Her?' author dissects attraction

February 14, 2009|Erika Schickel

Helen Fisher thinks dating should be less about romance and more about science.

"If you are describing yourself on a dating site or in the personals," she writes in "Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love by Understanding Your Personality Type," "you might compose your essay thus: 'I am a ---- year-old female/male with elevated activity in the mesolimbic, dopamine system; low MAOB on my blood platelets; high circulating testosterone; low serotonin in many limbic regions; and low norepinehprine in my cerebrospinal fluid.' But to keep it simple, just say: 'I'm an Explorer.' "

Fisher, an anthropologist and evolutionary biologist, has devoted 30 years of research and five books to the study of human attraction. "Why Him? Why Her?" examines how brain chemistry determines temperament and temperament dictates whom we love.

"Temperament is different from character," Fisher explains by phone from the Midwest, where she is on a book tour. This is a key distinction in her work.

"Character stems from your experiences, the circumstances in which you were raised," she writes. "The balance of your personality is your temperament, all of the biologically based tendencies you have inherited, traits that emerge in early childhood to produce your consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. Temperament is the foundation of who you are."

In "Why Him? Why Her?", Fisher uses MRIs, twin studies and popular and molecular genetics to define four basic temperament types: Explorers, Builders, Directors and Negotiators. "[O]ur primary personality type," she writes, "steers us toward specific romantic partners. Our biological nature whispers constantly within us to influence who we love."

The book had its genesis in 2004, when Match.com, the world's biggest Internet dating site, approached Fisher with a question central to their business: "Why do you fall in love with one person rather than another?"

Fisher was stumped. Plenty of research suggests we are attracted to those from similar socioeconomic backgrounds, with equivalent intelligence and looks. Dating sites, matchmakers and well-intentioned friends have always paired people by common interest.

The issue of personality, however, has long been a wild card. "If you walk into a room full of attractive people with similar backgrounds, you don't fall in love with all of them," Fisher points out.

She wanted to learn why not, and in the process, to nail down once and for all this thing called "chemistry." As she writes: "I realized I had to come to grips with this opportunity -- a chance to apply the newest data in neuroscience to the essential question of who you love."

Fisher began by developing a questionnaire that sought to pinpoint temperament. By responding to prompts such as "I find unpredictable situations exhilarating" or "I think consistent routines keep life orderly and relaxing," people can determine which of the four groups fits them.

If you live high on dopamine and norepinephrine, you are an Explorer -- someone who takes risks, is flexible and energetic, spontaneous and easily bored by routine.

Those with high levels of serotonin are Builders: calm, managerial, loyal, orderly and conscientious.

Testosterone drives Directors, who are competitive, self-disciplined, good with systems, often exacting and focused.

Negotiators are people people: trusting, broad-minded, empathetic, idealistic and awash in estrogen and oxytocin.

Using the database of Chemistry.com, a Match.com "sister site" for which she is chief scientific advisor, Fisher tracked 28,128 anonymous members and got feedback on their relationship success. A clear pattern emerged: Explorers liked Explorers, Builders wanted Builders and Directors and Negotiators were attracted to each other.

To Fisher, that all makes perfect evolutionary sense.

"Long ago, among our forebears," she writes, "each type became particularly drawn to those who either complemented or accentuated their personality in ways that helped them rear their young. Directors and Negotiators pooled their very different resources. Builders capitalized on their strengths to produce many young with a single partner. And Explorers created variety in their offspring. All were successful ways to combine and spread one's genes. They still are."

Fisher doesn't need to answer her own questionnaire to know that she's a "cookie-cutter Explorer/Negotiator." True to type, she is less interested in details than in the big picture. "The details for me," she says, "are building blocks to the empire."

And what is that empire? For Fisher, it's not just a matter of understanding the science of human behavior but of rescuing our primitive selves from a crumbling marriage culture. More and more people now form a variety of pair bonds over a lifetime, creating non-traditional families.

"I think it is time to practice the democracy we preach," Fisher writes on Chemistry .com. "Prince Charming. Happily ever after. Till death do us part. The belief that there is only one true love for each of us. These fantastical beliefs may be as damaging as the fantasy of the perfect female body. Most of us can't live up. So let's embrace what we see around us; men and women following their own paths in their primordial drive to love."

It is a giddy, romantic notion, well worth considering on Valentine's Day.

Let's worry less about finding and keeping Mr. or Ms. Right and, as Fisher suggests, "enjoy our freedom to be ourselves."

--

Schickel is the author of "You're Not the Boss of Me: Adventures of a Modern Mom."

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