Studying personality for the dating site Chemistry.com, noted Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher found keys to compatibility.
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When it came to love, Helen Fisher figured she had done it all.
She had explored the evolution of human pair-bonding; discovered a universal four-year itch that often led to divorce; and theorized that lust, romantic love, and attachment are each separate drives.She had even used brain scans to show that the chemistry of romantic love and the chemistry of addiction are similar.
By 2004, Fisher, a research professor of biological anthropology at Rutgers University whom the media had dubbed the Love Doctor, had reached a professional turning point: “I was truly thinking of getting out of studying love—I figured that there was more to be said, but maybe not by me.”
Then, two days before Christmas, she received a phone call from Match.com. The executives there had a project in mind, and they wanted advice from the best love expert around. Four days later, Fisher found herself in a New York conference room with about a dozen strangers.
“In the middle of the morning,” she recalls, “they literally looked at me and said, ‘Why do you fall in love with one person rather than another?’ ”
“I said, ‘I don’t know. Nobody knows.’ ”
Far from being put off, the Match.com executives shared with Fisher their plan to launch a new dating site—Chemistry.com—that would use science to find people their ideal romantic partners.
“I said, ‘Are you sure you have the right person? I study why we’re all alike, and you’re asking me why we’re all different.’ ”
And yet the challenge tempted Fisher. Sure, she says, scientists know that people are attracted to others who share their values, backgrounds, and intelligence. Fisher also was familiar with John Money’s concept of “love maps,” mental pictures of the ideal mate derived from our childhood experiences.
But what about matching people by personality? That was the new frontier—and Fisher is an explorer by nature. The meeting ended with Match.com—founded in 1995 and now the world’s largest online dating site—asking Fisher to help them design Chemistry.com.
Her work on the project forms the basis for her new book, Why Him? Why Her? Finding Real Love by Understanding Your Personality Type (Henry Holt). In it, she proposes four basic personality categories: Builders, Directors, Negotiators, and yes, Fisher’s own type, Explorers.
In a way, the 63-year-old Fisher had been preparing for this new gig all her life.
But before she signed on as chief scientific advisor to Chemistry.com, she needed to be certain that she could make a contribution. “I pulled out this blank sheet of paper and asked myself, What do you know about personality? I said, Well, you know about dopamine.” She had explored the association between elevated levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and romantic attraction in Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love (2004).
“I wrote down the characteristics associated with the dopamine system: risk-taking, novelty-seeking, curiosity, creativity, spontaneity,” Fisher says. In her paradigm, that constellation of traits would denote an Explorer.
Then there was serotonin, another neurotransmitter, one associated, she says, with traits such as being “calm, cautious but not fearful, social, popular, managerial, traditional, conventional, literal, fact-oriented, conscientious, loyal.” She named that type the Builder.
She knew the effects of testosterone and estrogen, too, from her work on gender differences, the foundation of her book, The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and Why They Are Changing the World (1999). She describes the testosterone-fueled Director as “direct, tough-minded and decisive,” as well as competitive, logical, and mathematically and mechanically adept. By contrast, the estrogen-influenced Negotiator is imaginative, intuitive, agreeable, verbal, and skilled at intimacy.
“So I looked at those four things,” Fisher recalls. “Now I know there’s a lot of chemicals in the brain, but they don’t all code for personality traits. I know that those four do.
“I sat there with these four sheets of paper and said to myself, Nobody’s ever been able to solve how two personalities get along. I thought to myself, Maybe I could create a questionnaire to see to what degree you express these four constellations of personality traits—and then watch who’s drawn to whom.”
And that is how she and Chemistry.com made their match.
Fisher knows she is primarily an Explorer—spontaneous, adventurous, a risk-taker both personally and professionally. But she also has some Negotiator traits, she says. Both aspects of her personality are readily apparent on a visit to her Upper East Side apartment, a cozy refuge filled with books and decorated with artwork and artifacts accumulated in her travels to 60 countries. Blonde, slim, and pretty in a black ribbed sweater and black jeans, Fisher leads off with a worried disquisition about the fire she has built in her living room. Traces of acrid smoke tinge the air. Obsessing, she springs up periodically to open and close windows so we won’t either choke or freeze. Above the fireplace hangs a brightly colored abstract painting. The living room is decorated with an Oriental rug, Chinese calligraphy, dark wooden furniture, and an abundance of large plants.
As one might expect, Fisher is very smart and intensely verbal. But she is also charming, disarmingly candid, and easy to confide in, like an old friend. Surprisingly, she describes herself as an introvert and says she hasn’t gone to a dinner party in twenty years. She prefers a night at the theater or opera, or dinner with a friend. She was married once, at age 23, for eleven months, a mistake she quickly recognized. “He was boring,” she says. That would never do.
Fisher was raised in prosperous New Canaan, Connecticut, one of four children, including her identical twin, Lorna. Her mother was a sculptor and horticulturist, and her father was an executive at Time Inc.
“People have asked me why I studied love, and I’ve always felt that my answer was a disappointment,” she says, perhaps because it doesn’t pinpoint any childhood trauma. “What I really was interested in was studying human nature. I’m sure that being an identical twin had a profound effect on my interest in what we share—what I not only share with my twin sister, but…with you and everyone else.”
Lorna, to whom Fisher is close, is a hot-air balloon pilot and an artist. As children, “we laughed alike and still do,” Fisher wrote in Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray (1992). “We both like risk, although we display it very differently.”
At New York University, Fisher double majored in psychology and anthropology. She earned her doctorate in physical anthropology at the University of Colorado and turned her attention to the evolutionary origins of human pair-bonding. “I figured that if you study sex and love,” she says, “you’re going to find biological patterns, because sex and love are associated with reproduction.”
For a decade, Fisher was a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. But, she explains, “I am an unusual academic in that I make my living outside of academia, by writing books, public speaking, and doing basic research on my own, a decision I made some 33 years ago in graduate school.” Now a research professor in Rutgers’s anthropology department, Fisher has also taught classes there, including Introduction to Human Evolution and the Evolution of Human Sexual and Social Behavior.
Fisher’s popularizing approach was pilloried by Judith Thurman in the New Yorker in a February 2004 review of Why We Love. “Fisher’s erudition has been so watered down by condescension…that her science is as cartoonish as her advice is insipid and her prose tasteless,” Thurman wrote.
But that represents a minority view. Pepper Schwartz, professor of sociology at the University of Washington in Seattle and chief relationship expert for the rival dating site Perfectmatch.com, sees Fisher as “a very original thinker” who has “cut an innovative and untraditional path in scholarship” and “breaks new ground in sometimes risk-taking ways.”
“Helen’s research really highlights the differences between short-term lust, medium-term love, and long-term attachment,” says Geoffrey Miller, author of The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature (2000) and associate professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico. “She’s been at the forefront of helping us understand the different adaptive functions of each of these three emotions and in tracing their brain circuitry.” On a practical level, he adds, her work helps “marital therapists to reassure clients that…the decline of sexual frenzy and increase of intimacy after a few years of marriage is perfectly natural.”
David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin and an expert on the evolutionary psychology of mate selection, is critical of what he calls Fisher’s tendency “to ignore fundamental differences between the sexes in strategies of human mating, as well as in the underlying psychology.”
Overall, though, Buss terms himself “a big admirer of Helen and her work,” including her studies on hormones. He credits her with “helping to get the word out to the public about the importance of an evolutionary foundation for understanding human mating.”
After she named her personality types, Fisher says, she discovered that philosophers from Plato on have been describing similar constellations of traits. So has the widely used Myers-Briggs personality test. Her contribution has been “adding some of the biological mechanisms that contribute to mate choice,” she says. “That’s totally new.”
Even after Chemistry.com launched as a paid site in 2006 under the aegis of Match.com, Fisher was still trying to figure out two things: What questions would sort out the four personality types with acceptable precision? And what personality would each type be romantically drawn to? In the end, to solve those problems, she and her team would rely on a sample size of more than 6 million online daters who answered her questionnaires and were provided with matches by Chemistry.com.
But there were some embarrassing hiccups along the way—in part because not just science but commerce was at stake. Online dating is big business, and Chemistry.com wasn’t the only dating site trying to use personality matching. Evangelical Christian and clinical psychologist Neil Clark Warren, who founded eHarmony in Pasadena, California, in 2000, swore by its extensive questionnaire and patented Compatibility Matching System. And Schwartz, at Perfectmatch.com, used yet another matching program, calling for a mix of similarities and differences between prospective mates. The rivalry among the three was well-described in a March 2006 Atlantic cover story titled, “The New Science of Love.”
In 2007, Chemistry.com launched an aggressive advertising campaign against eHarmony.com that showcased individuals “rejected by eHarmony” for being gay or otherwise unmatchable. (In November 2008, eHarmony.com settled an anti-discrimination lawsuit brought by a gay New Jersey man by agreeing to start a separate online dating service for same-sex couples.) Meanwhile, though, eHarmony responded to Chemistry by challenging its advertising, including Chemistry’s assertion that its site used “the latest science of attraction.” In September 2007, the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus ruled in eHarmony’s favor, and Chemistry agreed to modify its claims.
Fisher herself brings up the dispute, acknowledging that her work was evolving at the time. But by November 2007, she says, she was confident that her questions, and her compatibility model, worked.
Fisher’s raw data dramatically demonstrate the differences in responses among the four types. One interesting finding: As she had hoped, there turned out to be more male Directors and more female Negotiators. But the linkage by gender isn’t anything near 100 percent. Fisher suggests that Gandhi and Charles Darwin were classic Negotiators, as is Bill Clinton. “Did you watch him while his wife was making a speech at the Democratic convention?” she asks. “He cried all the way through it.” (President Barack Obama, by contrast, is an Explorer, she hypothesizes, because “he is charismatic, energetic, curious, creative, and diplomatic.”)
Her new book offers readers the opportunity to type themselves by answering 56 questions identical to those on the Chemistry questionnaire. If, for example, you “think consistent routines keep life orderly and relaxing,” you are probably a Builder. If you regard debating as “a good way to match my wits with others,” you’re likely a Director. If you “vividly imagine both wonderful and horrible things happening to me,” you’re inclined to be a Negotiator. And if you “find unpredictable situations exhilarating,” you may well be an Explorer.
At first, Fisher had hypothesized that opposites would attract: “I thought that the Explorer, who’s novelty-seeking, risk-taking, always out there, not always terribly loyal, would be drawn to somebody who could bring home, family, community, stability, loyalty, conscientiousness. And I thought that the Builder type would need someone to get them off the couch, to get them out there trying new things... .
“Then I thought that the Director…would really go for the Negotiator because the Director, they’re blunt, they’re rude, they can use the graciousness of the Negotiator…. I thought that the Negotiator could really use the decisiveness and the aggressiveness [of the Director] because they’re so placating and agreeable that they can be walked over.”
It turned out that her hypothesis was half right. Directors and Negotiators were drawn to each other. But Explorers on Chemistry.com most often chose other Explorers, and Builders preferred dates who were similarly traditional. There are no studies—yet—that might show whether these initial attractions endure or lead to lasting marital happiness.
Schwartz, author of Finding your Perfect Match (2006), says that while she rejects Fisher’s typological approach, she does believe social science “can help compatibility.” The question, she says, is, “What claims do people make for these [personality] tests? The claim I make is that anyone can get more insight into themselves and…what ways someone should be similar and different.”
“Love is complex,” Fisher says. “This aspect of love is complex. The feeling of love is actually rather simple. But who you fall in love with and that interaction between those two personality types is highly complicated. We’re nowhere near finishing understanding that. This”—Fisher’s foray into the science of personality matching—“is just the next step.”
There are some things that even the best science can’t fix. In the fall, Fisher’s partner of 30 years was hospitalized with throat cancer at age 84. Fisher’s eyes filled with tears as she discussed his limited medical options. (Fisher requested that her partner’s name not be used.)
With her partner’s blessing, given their age difference, Fisher long ago began seeing other men. Her love life “confuses people,” she says, and she herself may be wearying of the complications. “The next man I meet, I will marry,” she says, “if he wants to marry me.”
Fisher’s dates have mostly been Explorers like herself, willing to pick up and go on a moment’s notice. She has been reluctant to keep seeing a Builder she met recently, even though “he was tall, he was good-looking, he was in my age group, he was funny, he was educated.” The problem? He was also “so cautious,” always wanting to eat in the same restaurants, afraid of being overheard in public places, “that it would have driven me crazy in a year.”
But she knows that her partner’s eventual death will change her needs. “You know, relationships are complicated. You know what I gave up in life? I had the intimacy from [him]. So I gave up intimacy with these other people for adventure... And I imagine with [his] passing, without that core, I will seek that core in some other way.
“Maybe, suddenly, the Builder in my life will look better now,” she says. And she laughs.
Julia M. Klein is a Philadelphia-based cultural reporter and critic and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.