Dr. Stieg talks to biological anthropologist Helen Fisher about the four hormonal systems that drive our relationship styles, and how they can predict whether love will last.
Dr. Stieg: Earlier you mentioned, you know, the phases of romantic love, sexual attraction and bonding and the different brain regions that are activated during those components of being in love. Do those regions of the brain crosstalk and do they balance each other out?
Dr. Fisher: Yeah, it’s a great question. They definitely crosstalk. Now, for example, when you fall madly in love with somebody, you’re driving up the dopamine system in the brain, and dopamine has a positive correlation with the testosterone system is just you drive up, go. I mean, you’re likely to be driving up the testosterone system too. And this is why, you know, madly in love with somebody, three days ago, he was just a nice guy in the gym or at work or at school or in your social circle, and all of a sudden everything about him becomes sexual. The way he laughs, the way he gets off the bus, the way she twirls her hair, everything becomes sexual. And it’s because as you fall in love, you’ve triggered not only the dopamine system that is activated, the testosterone system and the sex drive. The reverse can be true too. Most liberated Americans have gone to bed with somebody who they were not in love with and never did fall in love with them. But it can happen. And the reason is because when you have sex with somebody, any stimulation of the genitals can drive up the dopamine system and the brain and trigger and push you over that threshold into falling in love. And then with the orgasm, there’s a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin linked with feelings of attachment. So one of the things I say on the podium is casual sex is not casual. Things happen in the brain. So that my business to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do. But as I go in to casual sex, it’s possible that I could fall in love with this person or I could feel deeply attached to this person. Am I willing to take that chance?
Dr. Fisher: And in fact, I do a lot of studies with match.com not on the match population. It’s, I regularly ask the question, have you ever gone into a one night stand? You know, just thinking it’s a one night stand and then found yourself going long term and this and turning it into a really long term committed relationship. And every year something like 30% of both men and women say yes, it certainly can happen, but they’re not always connected. You can lie in bed at night and feel a deep sense of attachment to one person and then swing into the feelings of wild, romantic love for somebody else and then into a feeling of sex drive for somebody you hardly know. So this leads of course, I mean the brain is very well built to fall in love, form a pair-bond, and raise your children as a team. But it’s also unfortunately built for — it the ability to love whether one person at a time, keep attachment for one romantic love for another. And of course real restlessness among among relationships, divorce and remarriage.
Dr. Stieg: A large part of your research has brought you to delineate four separate biologically based groups of people, each with its own host of traits.
Dr. Fisher: Well, but the question — This all started when match.com came to me in 2005 and it was two days before Christmas. I didn’t, and they asked me to meet with them two days after Christmas. So I, you know, nothing happens in New York at Christmas, but certainly went. And as it turned out, it was the CEO on down in the middle of the morning and he said, why do you fall in love with one person rather than another? And I said, you know, I just don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. I mean, there’s all kinds of cultural reasons that you go for one person rather than another. You know, we tend to fall in love with somebody from the same socioeconomic background, same general level of intelligence and good looks and education, religious values and social goals and economic resources all play a role.
Dr. Fisher: But I thought to myself, you know, people will say, we have chemistry as I mentioned, are we naturally drawn to some people rather than others? What is the biological component? Now, people in my field have known for some time that a good 40 to 60% of who you are comes out of your biology. So I thought to myself, what is that part of the puzzle? Are we naturally drawn to some people rather than others? So I went through all the biological literature for a couple of years again and looking for any trait at all linked with any biological system. And I found four brain systems that are each one, just as you mentioned, a link with a constellation, a suite of traits. The dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen systems. Now we are all a combination of all of them. These are not buckets, they’re not basic categories, but we express some of these categories more than others.
Dr. Fisher: So bottom line is I created a questionnaire to see to what degree you express the traits linked with these four brain systems, the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen systems. And then I created a questionnaire, and I put it internationally on match.com and domestically on one of their other sites called chemistry.com and 14 million people have now taken that test and I was able to watch who’s naturally drawn to whom for a first date and first dates are important because that’s when I think your biology is most likely to draw you to somebody after you get to know them. You think of all kinds of cultural things that you don’t like this about them. You do like that, but I think it’s actually a pure state, that very first attraction. So anyway, this is what I’ve found. If you are very expressive of the way to the dopamine system, you tend to be novelty seeking, risk-taking, curious, creative, spontaneous, energetic, mentally flexible.
Dr. Fisher: And the biggest thing in the dopamine system is what they call idea generation. These people are idea people and they’re naturally drawn to people like themselves. Novelty-seeking, risk-taking, curious, creative people want somebody like themselves. People who are very expressive of the traits in the serotonin system are also drawn to people like themselves. I think a good example would be Mitt Romney and Ann Romney and these people are traditional. The conventional, they follow the rules. They respect authority. They like schedules and plans. They’re concrete thinkers rather than theoretical thinkers. They’re cautious, not scared, but they’re cautious and they like the familiar. They also tend to be more religious. Actually religiosity is linked with a particular gene in the serotonin system, so these people are drawn like themselves as either I know the main people, the other two types, the highest testosterone and the high estrogen people are drawn to the opposite.
Dr. Fisher: People very expressive of the testosterone system, tend to be analytical, logical, direct, decisive, skeptical, tough-minded very good at things like engineering or math or computers or music is very structural and they are drawn to the high estrogen type, which is a people who, Oh, they’re imaginative, they think longterm. They’re synthetic contextual thinkers. They’re good at reading, posture, gesture, tone of voice. It’s a good intuition. They tend to be a nurturing and what we call pro-social, but I do want to stress the fact that we are all a combination of all of them. Now, for example, I’ve got this new man in my life. He and I are both high dopamine and that works very well. He is very high testosterone and I’m very high estrogen. So in that case, opposites attract, which is very natural. And it was the dopamine we’re similar, which also attracts.
Dr. Fisher: So in that way we are both very compatible. He is higher on the serotonin system than I am. Recently we went to the movies and I said to him, I said, “Sweetie, do you happen to have any water in your backpack?” And he said, “Yeah, I do.” I said, “Well great, we can drink that in the movie house.” And he said, “Well no, we can’t. You know, that’s not, you can’t bring food and drink into a movie house. You’ve got to buy it at the concession stand.” So had I not known that he is naturally a guy who respects authority and follows the rules, I would’ve might’ve thought, “Oh, how stubborn and ridiculous.” But it’s who he is. And along with that, he’s also the kind of guy that’s probably not going to cheat on me. He’s going to follow those rules. He’s going to be very upright in many other ways and so what I’ve really learned is first of all, you got to know where people land on all four of the scales. That’s important and then once you know what somebody is like, I don’t even agree in the golden rule, you know, do onto others as you would have done unto yourself, I believe in the platinum rule, do unto others as they would have done unto themselves and you can reach them and win.
Dr. Fisher: The original questionnaire was done for match.com and it’s a book called Why Him? Why Her? That I wrote this right in there, Chapter Two. You can buy the book, I dunno for six bucks, whatever it is and it’s right in there. You can also find the original questionnaire in a lot of places on the internet, including one of my websites called www.theanatomyoflove.com but you can find it on there that, since then, I’ve actually done the next iteration of the questionnaire, which I think is even better because I added some bells and whistles to it. That is one that I use in business and you gotta pay some money for it, but it’s at that my website, neurocolor.com
Dr. Stieg: It seems to me that there may be certain personality types that are more inclined to remain monogamous versus not, or is it really social pressure or is it just natural to remain monogamous or not? What’s your take on that?
Dr. Fisher: Well, let’s define monogamy first. You know, in biological anthropology, we don’t regard it as fidelity because it’s a pair bond. Mono means one and gamy, it means spouse, one spouse. It does not mean being sexually faithful to that spouse. But I have looked at adultery in 42 countries and everywhere I’ve looked, do you find that everywhere in the world? And in fact, we actually know some of the genetics that play a role in it, in adultery. So I think that people are probably a great, many people are predisposed to adultery. And then we think with our big cerebral cortex, I’m not going to do that. I love my wife. I’ve got a new baby, I’ve got a great house, but I don’t want to ruin either my health, my reputation, or my family or my job to do this. So, you know, we have all kinds of predispositions that have evolved for Darwinian evolutionary reason, but we’re not puppets on a string of DNA.
Dr. Fisher: We make decisions in our lives. But you asked the question of which of these four styles of thinking is more likely to be adulterous? And the answer is, I don’t know. I honestly don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows. You know, I’ve just begun to define this. You know, every other personality questionnaire in the world started from a linguistic studies so they can’t go back and validate it by going back to the linguistic studies to prove that they’re studying what they’re really studying. Whereas mine started from an understanding of brain circuitry and physiology and architecture to make a questionnaire and then went on to do two brain scanning studies to prove that the questionnaire studies what it actually studies. Now I need other people to take that questionnaire and bring it into their therapy community and and have people walk into their office who happened to take it and we see what patterns there are.
Dr. Fisher: This is just the beginning of a new understanding of personality and my hypothesis is that these four styles of thinking and behaving are going to be more predisposed to different kinds of addictions. I wouldn’t be surprised if the high dopamine type of person is going to be more likely to be adulterous because they’re restless and they’re curious and spontaneous and they can get into things that they didn’t realize they went to. My guess is that the high serotonin type, because they are traditional conventional follow the rules, they might be more likely to have an attachment addiction where they stay in very bad relationships and don’t get out of them because they feel a responsibility to the community and to themselves and to their vows. And it’s entirely possible that the high testosterone may do more abandonment rage and do more homicide when when they feel addicted to love and then the high estrogen type may well be more inclined to clinical depression.
Dr. Fisher: But you know, we don’t even know what alcohol does to this brain system. I mean, when you’re an alcoholic, do you fall in love with everybody because you sensitize this whole brain system, or do you fall in love with nobody because you’re so over sensitized that you, you don’t reach out. We haven’t proven it yet yet with SSRI. How about people who overeat? How about people who get exercise or don’t get exercise? I mean, you know, I just hope that I’m still alive to see other people take my data and get an understanding of this personality type so that when somebody walks into the therapy office, when they want to hire somebody, when they want to build a team, when they want to create innovation in the office to use this material in all kinds of ways to understand people better and to get people the help they need when they’re in trouble and put them into the right kind of jobs so that they do their best.
Dr. Stieg: Helen, this has been a most fascinating half our discussion and I appreciate your bringing your years of research and knowledge to lessons on the brain. And I think it proves the old adage that when you answer one question, you’ve created many more.
Dr. Fisher: Can I tell you one more thing? Cause it’s so important to me — It’s about happiness, you know, and a lot of psychologists will say, what can the brain tell you about happiness? It is just a blank, you know? And they will say there’s all kinds of cultural reasons that people create a happy relationship. And I like them all. I mean people will say, don’t show contempt, you know, don’t threaten divorce. Listen accurately, all very good, but this is what the brain says about happiness and we discovered it. We stumbled on it. We put people in who are in long term partnerships. Average period in the partnership was 20-21 years. These people were all married. They were married longterm. They came into the lab saying, I’m still in love with her or in love with not just loving but in love with this person. We put them in the machine not knowing what would happen.
Dr. Fisher: Well, we did find the same activity in the ventral tegmental area and other brain regions linked with romantic love, but we also found three brain regions linked with happiness. They had taken a questionnaire on marital happiness and these are the three brain regions that become active when you are in a longterm happy relationship. Brain regions linked with empathy, brain region, liquid controlling your own stress and your own emotions and brain regions linked with what we call positive illusions. The ability to overlook what you don’t like about somebody and focus on what you do. So the brain and understanding of the brain can add a great deal to psychology. I don’t want to wipe out psychology. It’s all good. I want to bring to the psychological and the therapy and the addiction community, and the legal, and medical community — data that can help them expand their horizons in dealing with their issues with their clients.
Dr. Stieg: You can find more about Dr. Helen Fisher at helenfisher.com and of course, please visit us at drphilstieg.com with any questions and comments.