Thursday, February 25, 2010

Emotional Command Systems, Predatory and Affective Aggression, and Natural Assassins

(Rubens, Daniel in the Lions' Den)

Emotions and Decision-Making

Today's blog entry will be focused primarily on the concept of "emotional command systems" that has been heavily researched and described by Jaak Panksepp and his colleagues. I will be drawing from Panksepp's seminal book Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. It is a serious and rigorous study, and I believe it deserves recognition as a real tour de force, with applications to a remarkably broad range of disciplines. Panksepp's research dovetails nicely with the works of Helen Fisher and John Gottman, it provides an underlying neuroscientific support for evolutionary psychology, and it will also provide a platform for future blog posts here that will delve into esoteric topics such as combat mindset, the psychological burdens of trading and investing, and a number of others.

A series of philosophers have put forth the view that emotions are the enemy of reason, and suggested that an emotionless man would be a kind of logic-driven, objective, purely analytical thinker, something like the Spock character of Star Trek fame. We now know that those who suffer damage to the limbic system do not become hyper-rational Bayesian demons, but instead become severely handicapped in terms of cognitive function, in part because they are unable to effectively prioritize. The limbic system plays a critical role in assigning priorities and tasks to the neocortex, which can then (hopefully) execute these tasks with a high-performance strategic/analytical toolkit. If the priorities that are handed off have been sabotaged by a malfunctioning limbic system, the executive neocortical apparatus may just seek clever ways to pursue maladaptive goals or sheer folly (to "rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic").

I will begin with the simplified, cartoon version of the brain that is represented by MacLean's triune brain system. In MacLean's model, the brain has three major layers, with the oldest being engulfed by the newer layers in an evolutionary progression. The lowest layer, the extremely old "reptile brain" (or "extrapyramidal motor system"), is tasked with instinctual, basic action tendencies and habits that relate to the most primitive and immediate needs. The second layer, the "mammalian brain" (limbic system), is the seat of our social emotions. Finally we have the "neomammalian brain" (neocortex), which is the source of the higher mammals' access to declarative knowledge---propositional and abstract, hypothesis-driven facts and concepts about the world.

Panksepp writes that "Although the cortex can be powerfully moved by emotions and the human cortex can rationally attempt to understand and influence them, it apparently cannot generate emotionality...we cannot precipitate emotional feelings by artificially activating the neocortex either electrically or chemically..."

Today we will focus in on the limbic system and, to some extent, some very primitive emotional circuits that do touch on parts of the reptilian brain. To understand Panksepp's research, it may be best to think of the emotional world as being directed towards solving survival problems on that "approach---withdraw" continuum that we have discussed in a few posts. The emotional command systems work within that continuum, but add sophistication and nuance.


At the simplest level, world events can produce approach or withdrawal, but careful analysis of the evidence now suggests that both of these broad categories contain a variety of separable, albeit interactive, processes that must be distinguished...These systems help create a substantial portion of what is traditionally considered universal "human nature."

John Gottman:

What exactly are these emotional command systems? Imagine your nervous system as a railroad and your emotions as its trains. The emotional command systems are the tracks on which your emotions run. They take your feelings in various directions, depending on the service you need to perform---exploring your surroundings, seeking sex, making friends, and so on.

In reality, emotional command systems are nerve-based circuits that coordinate electrochemical signals in the brain. Using a variety of experimental methods, scientists have proven the existence of at least seven separate systems. These pathways transmit messages from one nerve cell to the next until various body parts get the information they need to carry out the service desired.

Seven Emotional Command Systems

(mammalian brains---even those of solitary apex predators like this snow leopard--appear to share at least seven identifiable neural circuits that, when stimulated, reliably trigger specific emotional responses)


The overall lesson seems clear: Higher animals are not simply passive reflex machines responding to environmental stimuli in stereotypical ways; rather, they are spontaneously active, spontaneously flexible generators of adaptive some point in brain evolution, behavioral flexibility was...guided by internally experienced emotional feelings. I will argue that these emotional values are a fundamental property of emotional command systems...

And how many basic command systems for emotionality have in fact been reasonably well identified? At least four primal emotional circuits mature soon after birth. as indexed by the ability of localized brain stimulation to evoke coherent emotional displays in experimental animals, and these systems appear to be remarkably similarly organized in humans. The four most well-studied systems are (1) an appetitive motivation SEEKING system, which helps elaborate energetic search and goal-directed behaviors...; (2) a RAGE system, which is especially easily aroused by thwarting and frustrations; (3) a FEAR system, which is designed to minimize the probability of bodily destruction; and (4) a separation distress PANIC system, which is especially important in the elaboration of social emotional processes related to attachment.

In addition to the preceding primitive systems that are evident in all mammals soon after birth, we also have more sophisticated special-purpose socioemotional systems that are engaged at appropriate times in the lives of all mammals---for instance, those that mediate sexual LUST, maternal CARE, and roughhousing PLAY. Each of these is built around neural complexities that are only provisionally understood.

Panksepp's emotional command systems have been verified by means of direct stimulation to the brains of lab animals. The systems truly are circuits---stimulate one electrically and the animal will show behavior that corresponds with the particular emotion being controlled. Thus, a zap to the RAGE system will cause an animal to become extremely aggressive.

As I continue with more of Panksepp's words on the four primary systems, keep in mind Helen Fisher's taxonomy of personality types that we discussed previously, as well as the four drives (Learn, Bond, Defend, Acquire) that were described in Driven.

1. The SEEKING system. ...This system makes animals intensely interested in exploring their world and leads them to become excited when they are about to get what they desire. It eventually allows animals to find and eagerly anticipate the things they need for survival, including, of course, food, water, warmth, and their ultimate evolutionary survival need, sex. In other words, when fully aroused, it helps fill the mind with interest and motivates organisms to move their bodies effortlessly in search of the things they need, crave, and desire. In humans, this may be one of the main brain systems that generate and sustain curiosity, even for intellectual pursuits.

2. The RAGE system. Working in opposition to SEEKING is a system that mediates anger. RAGE is aroused by frustration and attempts to curtail an animal's freedom of action. ...This system not only helps animals defend themselves by arousing fear in their opponents but also energizes behavior when an animal is irritated or restrained. Human anger may get much of its psychic "energy" from this brain system. Brain tumors that irritate the circuit can cause pathological rage, while damage to the system can promote serenity.

3. The FEAR system. A FEAR circuit was probably designed during evolution to help animals reduce pain and the possibility of destruction. When stimulated intensely, this circuit leads animals to run away as if they are extremely scared. With weaker stimulation, animals exhibit just the opposite motor tendency---a freezing response, common when animals are placed in circumstances where they have been previously hurt or frightened. Humans stimulated in the same brain areas report being engulfed by intense anxiety.

4. The PANIC system. To be born a mammal is to be born socially dependent. Brain evolution has provided safeguards to assure that parents (usually the mother)take care of the offspring, and the offspring have powerful emotional systems to indicate that they are in need of care (as reflected in crying, or, as scientist prefer to say, "separation calls"). The nature of these distress systems in the brains of caretakers and those they care for has only recently been clarified; they provide a neural substrate for understanding many other social emotional processes.

(Jaak Panksepp)

I would not suggest that Panksepp's primary SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, and PANIC circuits for emotional commands and enhanced mammalian survivability correspond perfectly with Fisher's four personality types, the "Four Temperaments" of the classical world (also used in Steiner's "Anthroposophy' education model), and the four drives of human nature that Lawrence and Nohria describe (for instance, the drive to acquire could be seen as a property of SEEKING, RAGE, or FEAR, depending on how it is defined). However, I would say that the convergence is at least interesting.

Simplified Construct


RAGE---Director---Drive to Defend
FEAR---Builder---Drive to Acquire
SEEKING---Explorer---Drive to Learn
PANIC---Negotiator---Drive to Bond


Predatory Aggression: Natural Born Killers

One of the interesting findings that Panksepp and his colleagues have made is that mammals have two distinct, core systems for aggression: a predatory aggression system, which is designed to chase down and kill prey items; and an affective or emotional aggression system, which is for everything else (self-defense, maternal defense of young, inter-male territorial aggression for establishing dominance, and so on).


Distinctions among neural pathways for aggression have been effectively made by the careful psychobehavioral analysis of aggressive sequences evoked by direct electrical stimulation of the brain (ESB). The fact that coherent patterns of aggression can be produced in this way is remarkable in itself. If, as many scientists used to believe, aggression is largely a learned response rather than an intrinsic potential of the nervous system, it would be unlikely that localized ESB would evoke attack behaviors...A substantial amount of evidence now shows that affective attack and quiet-biting (i.e., predatory) attack systems are quite distinct in the brain.

One might be immediately comfortable with the idea that carnivores would certainly have a predatory system, but current research suggests that this circuit is also present in the minds of omnivorous/scavenger animals that we would normally consider to be prey. Animal behavior researcher Temple Grandin writes that:

Predatory aggression isn't just something predatory animals do. Prey animals also have the neural circuits for predatory aggression in their brains, though these circuits don't get activated very often...Research with rats, who are prey animals, shows that you can elicit a biting attack in some rats by stimulating the same part of the brain that you would stimulate to elicit a biting attack in a predatory animal like a cat. Even though a rat rarely hunts prey in the wild, he has the innate, built-in capacity to do it...The actual moment of the kill, called the killing bite, is a hardwired behavioral sequence...Scientists call (these behaviors) fixed action patterns because the sequence of behaviors is always the same. Fixed action patterns are turned on by sign stimuli or releasers. For all predators, rapid movement is a releaser that turns on predatory chasing and (killing).

Over the years, I've read various reports where a person has been injured or killed by a "tame" lion or tiger. In almost all of these accidents, the cause was rapid movement. The person who was bitten fell down, suddenly bent over, or dropped a tool, and the sudden movement triggered a predatory fixed action pattern.

Is it fun to kill...? The answer is "yes". ...behaviorists call predatory killing the quiet bite because predatory killing is not done in a state of rage. We know from brain research that during a kill the RAGE circuits in the brain are not activated...killing bites are nothing like the loud, screaming fights you'll see two animals from the same species get into....According to Jaak Panksepp, (studies) show that predatory killing comes from...the SEEKING circuit, which produces the pleasurable feelings of curiosity, intense interest, and eager anticipation...When the SEEKING circuit is turned on, animals and people seek the things they want, like food and shelter, or a perfect pants suit at a department store or an advanced degree in physics.

Perhaps the darkest, yet most fascinating, aspects of predatory aggression and the dopamine-stimulated SEEKING circuit involve the proclivities of highly intelligent mammalian predators. When the heightened brainpower is combined with these killing instincts and the ability to experience "fun", the result can be complex death-dealing behaviors. Grandin's perspective was forever changed when she watched a video of killer whales hunting for sport:

The different pods had each developed a different killing specialty. Some pods killed tunas they stole from fishing lines; some killed seals; some didn't do a lot of active killing. They just swallowed the fish whole...But one pod had become killers for sport. The cameraman filmed the pod separating a baby whale calf of another whale species from its mother and killing it. They crashed their bodies on top of it over and over again, pushing it underwater repeatedly until finally it drowned. It took them six or seven hours to kill the baby. Then they ate the tongue and nothing else. It was horrible.

With dolphins, researchers have pretty much reached the conclusion that much of the killing they do serves no (direct) evolutionary purpose. Dolphins will slaughter hundreds of porpoises at a time. The evolutionary reason for this would be if porpoises compete with dolphins for the same scarce resources, like food. But they don't. Porpoises eat different food from dolphins. Killing a porpoise doesn't increase a dolphin's chances of surviving and reproducing. The only conclusion is that dolphins kill porpoises because they want to.

Dominance, Challenge, Rage: Affective Aggression

Aggression related to the SEEKING circuit is experienced as pleasurable; aggression related to the RAGE circuit is experienced as emotional pain. The reason that animals engage in affective, or rage-based aggression is not because it feels good, but because a threat or rival in the environment is making them feel bad and they want the pain to stop. While the SEEKING circuit drives hunting behaviors and the killing of prey, then, the RAGE circuit typically drives intraspecies aggression: violence that takes place to secure access to scarce resources (status, sex, etc.) and to defend the animal against an attack.

The distinction between the two can very important to understand, because the RAGE circuit promotes "loud" behaviors---physical posturing to make the animal seem larger and stronger, growling or yelling, and so on, while aggression related to the SEEKING circuit promotes "quiet" behaviors---stalking, ruse, deception, concealment. A victim of human violence who is accustomed to thinking of violence in terms of bar fights or domestic blow-ups may not recognize threat cues in an environment in which he or she is actually being hunted by an intraspecies predator.


This brings up the question of dominance. All animals who live in groups---and that includes most mammals---form dominance hierarchies. Social animals are not democratic and there is an alpha animal, and often a beta animal, too. Dogs have an alpha male who is dominant over the others, as well as a beta male who is second in line to the alpha.

This may come as a surprise, but huge social animals like cattle are often more dangerous to handle than big solitary predators like tigers. A bull can attack a person to achieve dominance, but a tiger won't, because a tiger doesn't care about dominance; constant jostling inside a social hierarchy just isn't part of a tiger's life. You have to be extremely careful not to trigger predatory aggression in any big cat, obviously, but that's all. Every year several ranchers and dairymen are killed by cattle challenges, and it's my opinion that the best way to prevent dangerous attacks on people is to raise highly social grazing animals like cows and horses strictly with their own kind. They should look up to people as a benevolent higher power.

Although both testosterone and the RAGE circuit are implicated in dominance-driven behaviors, it is not yet clear how testosterone and the neural system for RAGE interact. Panksepp notes that, "It is possible that testosterone modulates activity in the RAGE system in a way quite comparable to its effects on intermale aggression systems, but the evidence is not definitive."

It appears that testosterone does not trigger the affective aggression and violent rage by itself; rather, testosterone causes a massive increase in the perception of a need for massive retaliation. In studies in which male human subjects were given doses of testosterone and then tasked with playing games that give players the opportunity to both cooperate and compete, the testosterone-doused subjects were not statistically more likely to initiate competition, but were far more likely to retaliate massively if the other players initiated first.

The current thinking on affective aggression is that it is usually sensitized by another command system, perhaps the FEAR circuit, which seeks to avoid threats. If an animal or human being is effectively cornered, either literally or by a social situation such as a closed group dynamic, escape is no longer an option and the RAGE circuit serves as a sort of psychological Maginot line. An overly sensitive RAGE system creates a power-hungry individual because he or she sees threats, competition, and resource scarcity everywhere, and the attainment of power helps to build a reserve against those hostilities so that the world can be seen as more predictable, controllable, and safe. In a crowded world, this person becomes a ticking bomb, and it is only a matter of time before he or she become frustrated or threatened.

Thus, there is truth---even at the individual level of resolution---in Sun-Tzu's advice to "leave the enemy a way out" if possible, and in numerous studies of conflict management that have shown how important it is to find ways to de-escalate situations by allowing a rival to withdraw from the field with his dignity and honor intact. Furthermore, as discussed in a previous post, the mistaken-but-popular belief that raw, negative emotional disclosure serves some kind of beneficial purpose in intimate relationships is revealed to lead to great neurochemical volatility, as RAGE circuits ignite in both parties and retaliations and counter-retaliations escalate in an irrational spiral of commitment to attack and dominance.

This also helps us to understand some of the seemingly-psychotic behavior that frequently occurs during divorce: because the RAGE circuit sees things in relative terms of advantage and access to resources, it would rather have both parties lose---perhaps by paying lawyers---than for both to notionally "win", but one party be perceived to "win" or benefit a bit more. In short, I might rather that both of us get nothing and the $100 to go to attorneys than for a rival to get $65 and me to get $35, even though this might superficially appear "irrational" to a behavioral economist who does not appreciate the concept of environmental rationality.

Dogs Need a Boss

(my Akita showed characteristics of a strong, dominant personality even when she was just a furry little puppy)

In regards to domestic animals and dominance hierarchies, Grandin reminds us that:

A human owner has the responsibility to understand and respect his pet's nature. Dogs and cats are predator animals. Dogs are hyper-social predators who live in dominance hierarchies. If you interfere with the hierarchy you can get the low-ranking dog or dogs killed by their own pack mates. You have to work with an animal's emotional make-up, not against it...dogs need friends, and if you're going to be away at work all day I recommend owning two dogs, preferably a male and a female. But I'd stop at two, because more than two dogs in one house can be a big problem if the dogs are too evenly matched in size, age, and strength. With closely matched animals the dominance hierarchy may not stabilize, because no leader is able to emerge and the dogs continue to challenge each other.

Following Grandin's line of thought and extending it to humans (I note that the concept of whether or not true alpha-dominant status can exist in humans is not without controversy), there is the intriguing possibility of a circular aspect to alpha behavior: because even-matched rivals increase the intensity of the dominance-seeking behavior (through frustration in the RAGE circuit), the ultimate alpha male would be expected to return to a "Mr. Nice Guy" behavior pattern and to not exhibit much in the way of social posturing or dominance-matching. Why? Because our mythical being doesn't have rivals: the superhero dominates other people in every competitive arena---social, athletic, intellectual, economic, whatever---so completely that his RAGE and FEAR circuits are suppressed. What remains may be an individual who is able to see the social world in terms of detached cost-benefit calculations.

I believe that I have witnessed this phenomenon a few times and will explore this a bit further in my next blog post, where I will describe the almost-unnaturally modest and social confrontation-avoiding behaviors of a former member of one of Britain's most prestigious special warfare units. In contrast to the usual Hollywood representation of an uber-alpha as an abrasive, hot-headed bully who "doesn't suffer fools" and acts impulsively, this real-life version comports himself with great dignity and self-possession because he is essentially in his own disassociated psychological world. While he does not predate upon humans under normal circumstances, he is, in effect, a solitary apex predator who exists outside of social dominance hierarchies, much like Grandin's tiger.

Intraspecies Predatory Aggression

I think it is notable that animals who are set up by experimental design to be able to self-administer stimulation to the SEEKING circuit will do it to the point of complete exhaustion, and will lose interest in virtually everything else. The SEEKING circuit stimulation is addictive. However, animals will avoid stimulating the RAGE circuit as much as they possibly can. Thus, we know that predatory forms of aggression feel good to the animal, but affective aggression feels bad.

(SEEKING circuit + predatory aggression = a delighted Bruce Willis in The Jackal)

Interestingly, any long-term training program designed to facilitate more effective aggression in humans should probably aim at creating a "predator" mindset and a sense of non-competitive play and exploration, as the student will find the training pleasurable and self-actualizing rather than something to suffer through if forced. In fact, the idealized, ultra-high-end, psychologically-optimized assassin would have a perspective that saw other human beings---or, at least, his target---as if they essentially belonged to a different, prey item species. Thus, he would naturally predate upon them rather than viewing them as potential rivals or competitors for scarce resources. Perhaps the classic fictional version of this mindset would be the way that vampires view human beings as primarily a food source.

We do have, to some extent, a real-life version of this and that is the mind of the true psychopath. When researcher Robert Hare and his team of graduate assistants sent out EEGs (electroencephalographs---brain wave tracings) of psychopathic brains as part of an article submitted for peer-review, his paper was rejected because the editor said that "those EEGs could not have come from real people." The psychopath, who Hare considers an "intraspecies" predator, may give us a chilling insight into the psychological component of an ideal assassin. Essentially you have an individual who finds stalking and killing members of his species pleasurable, a dark extension of a neural circuit that is "meant" for inspiring curiosity and anticipation.

We will return to speculations on how to physically, intellectually, and psychologically build the perfect assassin in the future, because I think it is such a fascinating intellectual exercise. I will just note for now that we might expect both an intraspecies human predator and an uber-alpha male to behave in very similar ways, as both would be free from dominance-matching (albeit for subtly different reasons---one sees humans as prey items or amusing snacks, and thus sees himself as a predatory Homo superior; the other is socially serene because he lives in the elegant, confident world of assumed or demonstrated broad-spectrum superiority)

Among the interesting ramifications of the interplay between emotional systems, psychological screenings, and personality types are the natural tensions between almost-diametrically opposed traits that organizations may desire. For example, military psychological tests tend to look for Fisher's Builder and Director types, as the motivational techniques that can be used to encourage desirable battlefield behaviors (willingness to sacrifice for one's own side and kill members of the opposing team) are well-known: creating strong unit cohesion through traditions, rituals, and appeals to patriotic loyalty; dehumanizing the enemy as much as the situation allows; using friendly casualties to motivate a controlled anger; and so on.

On the other hand, Directors are usually defined, emotionally, by their overactivated RAGE circuits; it is the RAGE circuit that makes them seek power and control (dominating the environment reduces frustration levels and thus placates the RAGE circuit). A group which has a high percentage of Directors who are roughly even matched in terms of size, strength, age, and overall capabilities will suffer the same sorts of problems that Grandin mentioned in her discussion of dogs: individuals who are constantly positioning themselves to dominate others, the construction of a hierarchy, and the punishment, sometimes to very cruel "Lord of the Flies" extremes, of the weakest members of the team.

The solution to this is well-established: very strict, pre-organized dominance hierarchies must be externally imposed on these groups (and this is more or less successful, with success rates increasing if the dominance hierarchy that is artificially imposed closely tracks the hierarchy that would have existed in the free conditions of a "state of nature". Combat leaders who look the part and who have backgrounds in combat sports or contact sports tend to fit naturally into these roles).

However, problems related to dominance-seeking and posturing can re-emerge in the most elite units, which tend to feature far less formality, less in the way of external sources of discipline, and more meritocratic decision-making. The selection processes used by units such as the British Army's legendary Special Air Service looks for a very different type of mentality than you would find in a conventional unit. Self-motivated loners with hidden, internalized agendas start to appear, and they can certainly game most of the standard psychological tests. This can create a tension between the traditional virtues celebrated by the military, and those that are needed for work in the murky world between small-unit special warfare operations and clandestine intelligence missions. Military psychologists---at least in the most combat-ready units---are generally suspicious of Explorers, because the motivation of an open-minded, novelty/fun-seeking individual to pursue battlefield experiences is at best unclear, and at worst judged as sociopathic.

In the aftermath of major combat operations, a nation-building program would almost certainly want to emphasize Fisher's Explorers and Negotiators, as these stand the best chance of being to cross cultural boundaries and display qualities associated with very strong interpersonal skills (tolerance, empathy, etc.). Natural Negotiators, perhaps normally seen as lacking killer instinct, may be just what is required in these new circumstances.

The SEEKING Circuit, Dopamine, and Schizophrenia

The SEEKING circuit creates a pleasurable feeling when insights about the world---predictive patterns would have clearly been very useful to us in our ancestral environment of evolutionary adaptation---are discovered. Panksepp notes that "arousal of the SEEKING system spontaneously constructs causal 'insights' from the perception of correlated events. Indeed, all forms of inductive thought, including that which energizes scientific pursuits, proceed by this type of...thinking. An intrinsic tendency for 'confirmation bias' appears to be a natural function of both human and (test animal) rat minds."


Thus, the seeking circuit can promote many distinct motivated behaviors, and the underlying neural system is prepared to jump to the conclusion that correlated events reflect causal relationships. It is easy to appreciate how this may yield a consensual understanding of the world when the underlying memory reinforcement processes are acting normally (i.e., yielding a "reality" that most of the social group accepts). It is also easy to understand how it might yield delusional conclusions about the world. If the system is chronically overactive, it may be less constrained by rational modes of reality testing. The fact that the mesolimbic dopamine system is especially responsive to stress could explain why paranoid thinking emerges more easily during stressful periods, and why stress may promote schizophrenic thinking patterns.

While it is still a bit difficult to discuss this publicly, I feel that I should add that Panksepp's discussion of the SEEKING circuit has assisted me in better understanding the hellish, private mental world that my late brother Dominic, who suffered from both PTSD and schizophrenia, must have endured. What appears to happen in the brain of the schizophrenic is that a hyperactive dopamine-regulated SEEKER system is in play, with the net effect being that the individual draws inferences and causal relationships from the world around him that are not true (or, possibly, not true for the vast majority of the individual's peers---there is the chance that, in some rare cases, the schizophrenic may in fact be the one seeing reality and the rest of us are living in a consensus hallucination of some description or another).

Under stress, the intensity of the faulty correlation mechanism appears to grow stronger, with the mind turning on itself as the victim of schizophrenia finds it more and more difficult to determine which situations and connections are real and which ones are not. "Voices" and "angels" may start to appear, as disparate features of the world converge on one highly personalized nightmare. Before he went on his medication regimen, Dominic began to feel that voices on the radio were talking to him directly.

My brother's illness manifested itself during his tour of duty as an Army National Guard infantryman in Iraq. It has been noted in many cases how NG units can suffer additional stresses due to the fact that the soldiers' lives are normally not specifically organized around military deployments (as an active-duty soldier's life would be). Soon after his return home and discharge, Dominic began constructing increasingly complex and paranoid theories regarding conspiracies of forces that were aligned against him. Blessed with an IQ at least one standard deviation above "genius" level, Dominic would use his intelligence to defend these theories against any attempts to establish that they were incredibly unlikely, if not impossible. I was amazed at the intellectual acrobatics and research efforts he would go to to preserve a conspiracy theory in the face of strong conflicting evidence.

Panksepp again:

If the normal functioning of this system is to mobilize the organism for seeking out resources in the world, then we begin to appreciate how the SEEKING system might also generate delusional thoughts. Apparently when this emotional system is overtaxed and becomes free-running, it can generate arbitrary and unrealistic ideas about how world events relate to internal events...we may have a great deal more to learn about schizophrenia from a study of the SEEKING circuits that mediate (this) behavior in animals.

As there is general agreement that paranoid schizophrenia is characterized by excessive brain (dopamine circuit) activity, anti-psychotic drugs reduce dopamine activity in key receptors. One of the most cruel realities of the illness becomes obvious when we consider how important dopamine and the SEEKING system are to an individual's motivation level, ability to approach the world with optimism and anticipate good results, and reward system. I know from personal experience that as the anti-psychotic effects reduced Dominic's paranoia symptoms, they simultaneously caused his quality of life to plummet and his ability to concentrate to fall off dramatically after a few weeks. Unfortunately, the tendency is to want the victim to "get on with life" and find satisfaction in work or school or relationships, when in fact the ability to do these things is being attacked by the very medicine that is used to treat the schizophrenia.

(in this picture taken at our parents' home back in the 1990s, my late, younger brother Dominic is on the left and I am on the right. We changed "covers"---military for "hats"---in the picture. Dominic was a U.S. Marine at the time and a member of a prestigious ceremonial unit stationed in Washington, D.C.)

I have previously noted that my own personality falls strongly into Fisher's Explorer category, and that as a consequence I have a fairly low threshold for boredom, strong drive for intellectual novelties, etc. If I am not careful, a strong interest in reductionist analytical frameworks and explanatory models for system behavior may lead me to see patterns and causal relationships where only noise actually exists. It appears that my brother's case was, to put it simplistically, a hyper-amplified version of the same type of personality, with his overactive dopamine circuit driving him to aggressively search his environment for patterns to recognize. Ultimately he saw things as overdetermined and could not contend with the idea that sheer randomness and coincidence were major players in his world.

I find it difficult to imagine what this must have been like except to try to conceive of living in a permanent state of nightmares---yet being awake. I also cannot easily articulate what it was like to see someone suffering from an illness that so distorted reality and made virtually everyone, including immediate family members, out to be the enemy.

Gottman, Positive Psychology, and the Command Systems

John Gottman feels that an understanding of Panksepp's mammalian emotional systems can be very useful for the individual who is seeking to improve his or her relationship management capacities. His approach seems to have three layers:

1. Understanding, in approximate theoretical terms, what the command systems are so that you can objectify them and gain a kind of metacognitive ability to monitor your emotions a bit better.

2. Finding how your own emotional life may have some systems that tend to be underactivated and some that tend to be overactivated (under- and over-activation both cause emotional distress).

3. Learn about the relative activation levels of your family and closest friends so that you can be better equipped to communicate with them effectively and make their environments happier.

I will speculate here that social groups may organize around particular, homogeneous clusters of relative emotional system activation levels, and this may represent an opportunity for psychologists to investigate the "emotional culture" of organizations.


...Two employees are invited to a weekend team-building retreat with the rest of their staff. One employee is quite social and feels very comfortable when her (social attachment system) is highly activated. She stays in a chipper mood for most of the event. But the other employee, who consistently prefers to spend time alone, is more comfortable when (the same system) stands idle. Working in groups for long hours leaves her feeling tense and drained. By the end of the weekend, she's had it. Three weeks later, however, the situation is reversed. The employee who has high (social activation needs) feels tense and frustrated at spending so much time alone. And the enployee who has low social activation needs feels serene and energized...

At the risk of being overly reductionist, I believe that we could, assuming it was possible to have detailed knowledge of an individual's various emotional command system "settings", begin to make fairly accurate forecasts about a number of social, political, and economic preferences that the individual would display. For instance, a woman who has a chronically overactivated RAGE circuit, which craves power and control, and PANIC circuit, which fears being alone in the world, would prefer social arrangements that A) feature groups (thus turning off the PANIC circuit); and B) feature opportunities for her to plan and direct the group's activities (thus temporarily satisfying the RAGE circuit). Politically, we might expect this person to be sympathetic to central planning/collectivist policies provided that she was in agreement with them, and hence able to feel more "in control" (i.e., she would be highly partisan).

In contrast, imagine that she was sent on a long business trip with a woman who had a chronically underactivated SEEKING circuit, which enjoys learning and creative freedoms, and an underactivated PANIC circuit, so that her default setting is to be fine with solitary activities. Ceteris paribus, we would expect this person to enjoy highly individualistic, exploratory opportunities, with travel schedules that are deliberately kept very loose and which feature lots of options, and to view the needs of the other woman as a kind of tyrannical egomania. Politically, we would expect this person to be a libertarian.


Your ability to regulate how much stimulation each of your emotional command systems receives can affect your life moment by moment as well as over the long term. In the short term, feeling out of sync with your current lifestyle or with those around you may put you in a bad mood. Over lengthy periods, it can influence your whole personality. People whose emotional command systems are chronically overactivated or underactivated may develop personality characteristics such as pessimism, irritability, fearfulness, belligerency, or melancholy.


In the next blog, I will try to finish the series on Gottman, Fisher, and Panksepp with some prescriptions. Gottman's "emotional bid" concept will be presented, as will some initial thoughts on an integrated, applied framework that will attempt to combine almost everything we have discussed thus far.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Emotional Gambits, Neural Threat Environments, and the Four Horsemen of Divorce

(Edmund Leighton, The Accolade)

Predicting Divorce

In the popular book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell describes the ability of psychology professor John Gottman to determine---with a reported 96% accuracy rate---whether or not a married couple will get divorced. This feat is impressive even before considering that Gottman can make his predictions after observing how the couple interacts for only five minutes in his "Love Lab", a sort of wired, pseudo-bed-and-breakfast facility on the University of Washington campus. The Love Lab is used for recording how couples interact during weekend getaways.

Although Gottman's primary research field is marriage, his work generalizes to most human relationships, and even those who have never been married will quickly recognize the scenario pictures that he paints.

In writing this kind of post, I realize that some readers may find it incongruous, perhaps even disturbing, for an anarcho-capitalist who trains in MMA and keeps assault rifles, tactical knives, and a notoriously dangerous Japanese breed of hunting/fighting dog in the home to be blogging about sensitive ways to resolve relationship conflicts. I personally see the two areas as providing a satisfying synergistic effect---we can look at it from the "drive to bond" and "drive to defend" perspective, view this as a yin-yang complementarity issue, see them as different tools on the limbic system approach-withdrawal continuum, or use some other abstraction that makes sense.

I only wish that I had begun making a sincere study of relationship dynamics many years ago. In other words...don't be like me, because I prove the truth of Ben Franklin's maxim: "Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other."

Because of the importance of the subject and its applicability to all manner of situations, from de-escalating potentially violent, emergency events at a bar or football game to avoiding divorce, among the most emotionally brutal threats in the modern environment, this blog topic seemed particularly important.

Gottman and Goleman

Gottman's work is in some ways an applied extension of Daniel Goleman's study of "EQ", or "Emotional Intelligence." EQ as Goleman defines it is a multi-factor form of intelligence that is distinct from what psychometricians term "g", the general intelligence factor that is (to some extent) measured by IQ tests. The core ability of EQ is the capacity to avoid creating so-called "amygdala hijackings"---blind emotional responses that view the world in stark, frequently inappropriate fight-or-flight terms---in both oneself and other people. A person of genius-level EQ would not only remain in control of public displays of harsh negative emotionality, but would be extremely good at de-escalating or even pre-empting amygdala hijackings in those around him or her.

Goleman is optimistic in that he maintains that EQ can be raised through training and practice (of course, a Helen Fisher student would predict that "Negotiator" personalities would have a natural advantage in this area), and his books provide all kinds of useful examples and ideas for how we can go about this.

John Gottman's particular task is to describe how EQ works in the context of successful marriages (or any serious romantic relationship, really), and he starts to do this by breaking down the relationship destruction cycle into phases.

Four Horsemen of the Relationship Apocalypse

Gottman's model for divorce prediction has five components:

1. Harsh Start-Up. Gottman maintains that the best way to predict how a conversation will end is by observing how it begins. The initial framing of the conversation has a strong influence on the outcome nearly 100%of the time. This is why a critical, abusive, or accusatory start-up pretty much dooms the rest of the conversation.

2. The Four Horsemen. The presence of these negative interactions alone gives Gottman a divorce prediction accuracy rate of over 80% (observing failures in repair attempts take him to 96%). As he says, "Certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that I call them the Four Horsmen of the Apocalypse. Usually these four horsemen clip-clop into the heart of a marriage in the following order: criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling."

Horseman 1: Criticism. Gottman: "You will always have some complaints about the person you live with. But there's a world of difference between a complaint and a criticism. A complaint only addresses the specific action at which your spouse failed. A criticism is more global---it adds on some negative words about your mate's character or personality.

Horseman 2: Contempt. Gottman: "...this sarcasm and cynicism are types of contempt. So are name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering, mockery, and hostile humor. In whatever form, contempt---the worst of the four horsemen---is poisonous to a relationship because it conveys disgust. It's virtually impossible to resolve a problem when your partner is getting the message that you're disgusted with him or her."

Horseman 3: Defensiveness. Gottman: "Although it's understandable that (the victim of the criticism and contempt) would defend herself, research shows that this approach rarely has the desired effect. The attacking spouse does not back down or apologize. This is because defensiveness is really a way of blaming your partner...defensiveness just escalates the conflict, which is why it's so deadly...criticism, contempt, and defensiveness don't always gallop into a home in strict order. They function more like a relay match---handing the baton off to each other over and over again, if the couple can't put a stop to it."

Horseman 4: Stonewalling. Gottman: "...where discussions begin with a harsh start-up, where criticism and contempt lead to defensiveness, which leads to more contempt and more defensiveness, eventually one partner tunes out. This heralds the arrival of the fourth horseman."

3 and 4. Flooding and Body Language. Gottman mentions how the amygdala hijacking scenario that Goleman articulates so well becomes a regular feature of toxic relationships:

Usually people stonewall as a protection against feeling flooded. Flooding means that your spouse's negativity---whether in the guise of criticism or contempt or even defensiveness---is so overwhelming, and so sudden, that it leaves you shell-shocked. You feel so defenseless against this sniper attack that you learn to do anything to avoid a replay. The more often you feel flooded...the more hypervigiliant you are for cues that your spouse is about to 'blow' again...the way to do that is to disengage emotionally from the relationship.

I would be able to predict divorce simply by looking at physiological readings...when we monitor couples for bodily changes during a tense discussion, we can see how physically distressing flooding is. ...Recurring episodes of flooding lead to divorce for two reasons. First, they signal that at least one partner feels severe emotional distress... Second, the physical sensations of being flooded---the increased heart rate, sweating, and so on---make it virtually impossible to have a productive, problem-solving discussion.

When your body goes into overdrive during an argument, it is responding to a very primitive alarm system we inherited from our prehistoric ancestors. All those distressful reactions...occur because on a fundamental level your body perceives your current situation as dangerous. ...from an evolutionary perspective, not much time has passed since we were cave-dwellers. So the human body has not refined its fear reactions---it responds the same way, whether you're facing a saber-tooth or a contemptuous spouse demanding to know why you can never remember to put the toilet seat back're left with the most reflexive, least intellectually sophisticated responses in your repertoire: to fight (act critical, contemptuous, or defensive) or flee (stonewall).

5. Failed Repair Attempts. From Gottman: "It takes time for the four horsemen and the flooding that comes in their wake to overrun a marriage. And yet divorce can so often be predicted by listening to a single conversation between newlyweds. How can this be? The answer is that by analyzing any disagreement a couple has, you get a good sense of the pattern they tend to follow. A crucial part is whether their repair attempts succeed or fail. Repair attempts...are efforts the couple makes to de-escalate the tension during a touchy period---to put on the breaks so flooding is prevented."

Gottman notes that repair attempts are the final defensive line against downward emotional spirals. "In unhappy marriages, a feedback loop develops between the four horsemen and the failure of repair attempts. The more contemptuous and defensive the couple is with each other, the more flooding occurs, and the harder it is to hear and respond to a repair. And since the repair is not heard, the contempt and defensiveness just get heightened, making flooding more pronounced, which makes it more difficult to hear the next repair attempt, until finally one partner withdraws."

Men Stonewall and Flood, Women Launch Harsh Start-Ups

The best approach to avoiding divorce, then, is a layered one that attacks each of the phases in the down-cycle. The research that has come out of Gottman's lab has indicated that "men are more easily overwhelmed by marital conflict than are their wives", so any relationship therapy which pushes confrontation, negative emotional disclosure, lack of clear gender roles, and criticism is going to create serious psychological burdens for the man. Gottman finds that many situations are started by women because women are ultimately less stressed by emotional/relationship conflict.


In 85 percent of marriages, the stonewaller is the husband...the reason lies in our evolutionary heritage. Anthropological evidence suggests that we evolved from hominids whose lives were circumscribed by very rigid gender roles, since these were advantageous to survival in a harsh environment. The females specialized in nurturing children (and gathering) and the males specialized in cooperative hunting.

As any nursing mother can tell you, the amount of milk you produce is affected by how relaxed you feel, which is related to the release of the hormone oxytocin in the brain. So natural selection would favor a female who could quickly soothe herself and calm down after feeling stress. Her ability to remain composed could enhance her children's chances of survival by optimizing the amount of nutrition they received. But in the male natural selection would reward the opposite response. For these early cooperative hunters, maintaining vigilance was a key survival skill...

To this day, the male cardiovascular system remains more reactive than the female and slower to recover from stress....Psychologist Dolf Zillman...has found that when male subjects are deliberately treated rudely and then told to relax for twenty minutes, their blood pressure surges and stays elevated until they get to retaliate. But when women face the same treatment, they are able to calm down during those twenty minutes. (Interestingly, a woman's blood pressure tends to rise again if she is pressured into retaliating!) Since marital confrontation that activates vigilance takes a greater physical toll on the male, it's no surprise that men are more likely than women to attempt to avoid it.

(natural hunters, like these Rhodesian Selous Scouts, have aggressive vigilance systems and testosterone circuits, a combination which can cost them dearly on the domestic front: for these and other reasons, divorce rates in elite military units typically exceed 90%)

Findings from "The Love Lab"

Gottman explains that most forms of relationship therapy or counseling fail because they proceed from the assumption that a core problem in most situations is a blockage of emotional expression. When both parties are able to be honest and disclose their true feelings in a safe, nonjudgmental environment, the theory goes, then the couple can form a more genuine emotional bond.

From Gottman:

The most common technique recommended for resolving conflict---used in one guise or another by most marital therapists---is called active listening. For example...Judy is upset that Bob works late most nights. The therapist asks Judy to state her complaints as "I" statements that focus on what she's feeling rather than hurling accusations at Bob. Judy will say, "I feel lonely and overwhelmed when I'm home alone with the kids night after night while you're working late," rather than, "It's so selfish of you to always work late and expect me to take care of the kids by myself."

Then Bob is asked to paraphrase both the content and the feelings of Judy's message and to check with her is he's got it right. (This shows that he is actively listening to her.) He is also asked to validate her feelings---to let her know he considers them legitimate, that he respects and empathizes with her even if he doesn't share her perspective...Bob is being asked to suspend judgment, not argue for his point of view, and to respond nondefensively. "I hear you" is a common active-listening buzzphrase. Thanks to Bill Clinton, "I feel your pain" may now be the most notorious.

By forcing couples to see their differences from each other's perspective, problem solving is supposed to take place without anger.

Gottman notes that the pioneers of marital therapy took the active listening technique from the work of psychotherapist Carl Rogers. The problem is that active listening was designed for individuals---a single patient meets with his psychotherapist and is encouraged to be honest. The psychotherapist uses nonjudgmental active listening to build rapport and to prevent the patient from self-editing or telling the therapist what he believes the therapist/society would want to hear.

Gottman continues:

Since marriage is also, ideally, a relationship in which people feel safe being themselves, it might seem to make sense to train couples to practice this sort of unconditional understanding...the problem is that it doesn't work...even after employing active listening techniques the typical couple is still distressed...the few couples who benefit relapse within a year. When Consumer Reports surveyed a large sample of its members on their experience with all kinds of psychotherapists, most got very high customer satisfaction marks---except for marital therapists, who got very poor ratings...

Bob might do his best to listen thoughtfully to Judy's complaints. But he is not a therapist listening to a patient whine about a third party. The person his wife is trashing behind all of those "I" statements is him. There are some people who can be magnanimous in the face of such criticism---the Dalai Lama comes to mind. But it's highly unlikely that you or your spouse is married to one of them.

Gottman feels that popular self-help advice leads to extremely unrealistic views of how relationships should work, and creates the illusion that honest communication and "constructive criticism" are key elements of the road to bliss. The prevailing wisdom in most therapy circles is that conflict avoidance will ruin a relationship. In contrast, Gottman finds that successful couples frequently have coping mechanisms in place to avoid conflict as much as possible, and he goes on to say that " is probably very clear to you (after reading his book) that there is no such thing as constructive criticism. All criticism is painful. Unlike complaints---specific requests for change---criticism doesn't make a marriage better. It inevitably makes it worse."

Avoid Vicious Feedback Loops

If it appears that Gottman is suggesting that a couple should ignore troubles and the troubles will go away, there is an element of truth to this. He is not alone here: a voluminous quantity of research has concluded that free-ranging emotional self-expression, perhaps being given a virtuous label like "honesty" or "disclosure", may serve a short-term purpose for an individual in a self-absorbed, cathartic way, but it does not generate happy outcomes for relationships.

A feedback loop exists: the limbic system will initiate a feeling of negative emotionality, perhaps irritation, but this could burn out quickly or be suppressed. When an environment is created in which these problems must be discussed openly, the neocortex will be involved and will look for justifications for the initial feeling. It will scan its emotional memories for criticism-worthy failings in one's mate. The criticism in turn triggers subsequent defensiveness or counter-attacks from the other person, and then loops back through the limbic systems of both to create even worse feelings.

We are all probably aware of how fights can start over inane, trivial topics and proceed to spiral, becoming amplified on each pass through the loop that is created, and then become very difficult to withdraw from. The snowball effect can trigger a cascade of resentments and material to fuel new fights.

In other words, social emotional expression is not the terminal state that follows from some internal emotional state: expressing an emotion physically is in itself a catalyst for new, internal emotional representations. We can harbor neutral, even positive feelings until we start criticizing, and then we can start to affect ourselves, elevate our own negative emotionality, and return to the outside world to escalate things even more. The internal state may come first and cause a physical expression; however, the physical state can also lead the subjective emotional feeling.

This all can occur because of a lag between vague, submerged emotional reactions and rationalized, explicit, consciously-accessible and categorized ones. The pre-conscious response may create a physical reaction that reveals itself in, say, physiological stress and body language, and the stress and body language may in turn cause us to consciously create a narrative that explains the stress position by looking for reasons why the other person is a threat. As an excellent book by the same title suggests, "We are strangers to ourselves." The problem with creating a forced outlet for expressing negative emotions is that it prevents the concerned party from thinking it is perfectly acceptable to find ways to internally terminate the negativity---patients are told that this "bottling up" is unhealthy and that the emotions must be allowed to run free.

People like Moshe Feldenkrais and F. Matthias Alexander understood how emotions can influence body language and posture, yet body language and posture can also influence emotions. It has even been proposed that one way to deal with the experience of negative emotional flooding may be to force oneself into physical postures that are not congruent with hostility, since the resulting "neural/physiological confusion" may give an opportunity for a few deep breaths, a relaxation trigger of some kind, and the restoration of relative control.

Those who appreciate a Zen perspective on this could say that a quiet mind and a centered awareness of the "eternal present" would assist in preventing an amygdala hijacking due to relationship stress. Freudians and Jungian psychotherapists might consider this a case of needing to strengthen the "Observing Ego", the self-monitoring capacity of meta-cognition.

In any case, we do know that practice does strengthen this capability, as "neurons that fire together also wire together." Simply exercising conscious control over the process and suppressing a hijacking will make it easier to do this again in the future, as a neural circuit making this a genuine skill will be developed and potentiated.

Accept That Most Problems are Unresolvable

(High-EQ couple Bonnie and Clyde know that they will always have their disagreements, but choose to emphasize the positive by finding an activity that they can both really enjoy)

In marriages, the situation is very perilous because Gottman has found that there are two kinds of marriage conflict: "resolvable" problems and "perpetual" problems that cannot be resolved. One of the reasons why active listening and most marital therapies fail is because about 70% of the problems---in both highly successful and highly unsuccessful marriages, the percentages are quite constant---are of this perpetual, unresolvable variety.


Unfortunately, the majority of marital conflicts fall into this category---69 percent, to be exact. Time and time again when we do four-year follow-ups of couples, we find that they are still arguing about precisely the same issue. It's as if four minutes have passed rather than four years. They've donned new clothes, altered their hairstyles, and gained (or lost) a few pounds and wrinkles, but they're still having the same argument.

It is easy to see why therapy attempts offer so little in the way of tangible performance results, if most therapies mistakenly lead couples to believe that something is seriously, fundamentally wrong with their marriages if nearly 70% of their problems are never "fixed." The therapist gains from this illusion because perpetual problems that are mistakely put in the "solvable" file mean an endless stream of appointments and an audience that has been captured by a cruel hoax.

In fact, one is hard-pressed to conceive of a falsehood that would do more damage to good relationships and generate more divorces.

Gottman continues:

...(successful) couples understand that problems are inevitably part of a relationship, much the way that chronic physical ailments are inevitable as you get older. They are like a trick knee, a bad back, an irritable bowel, or tennis elbow. We may not love these problems, but we are able to cope with them, to avoid situations that worsen them, and to develop strategies and routines that help us deal with them. Psychologist Dan Wile said it best in his book After the Honeymoon: "When choosing a long-term will inevitably be choosing a particular set of unsolvable problems that you'll be grappling with for the next ten, twenty, or fifty years...Paul married Alice and Alice gets loud at parties and Paul, who is shy, hates that. But if Paul had married Susan, he and Susan would have gotten into a fight before they even got to the party. That's because Paul is always late and Susan hates to be kept waiting. She would feel taken for granted, which she is very sensitive about. Paul would see her complaining about about this as her attempt to dominate him, which he is very sensitive about. If Paul had married Gail, they wouldn't even have gone to the party because they would still be upset about an argument they had the day before about Paul's not helping with the housework..." And so it goes.

In unstable marriages, perpetual problems like these eventually kill the relationship. Instead of coping with the problem effectively, the couple gets gridlocked over it. They have the same conversation about it over and over again. They just spin their wheels, resolving nothing. Because they make no headway, they feel increasingly hurt, frustrated, and rejected by each other...gradually they feel psychologically overwhelmed. They start a slow process of trying to isolate or enclose this problem area. But actually they have become emotionally disengaged from each other. They are on the course toward parallel lives and inevitable loneliness---the death knell of any marriage.

I would add that an additional issue created by the delusion that all problems must be resolvable is the perpetual search for a perfect relationship. If Paul sees that another woman appears to lack the same problem(s) that he finds unresolvable in his relationship with Alice, he may mistakenly think that the absence of this particular problem somehow prevents the new woman from having her own, temporarily-concealed set of intractable, permanent problems. He will unfortunately learn about his fallacy only after leaving Alice and trying to establish a relationship with the new woman. Weeks or months later, the dopamine-fueled novelty will wear off and he will find himself back at square one, perhaps dealing with a set of problems that, while certainly different from the ones he had with Alice, make him feel even more cynical, lonely, compromised, and sad.

Genuine Relationship Skill vs. Social Manipulation

While Fisher might argue that much of long-term mating success is ultimately dependent on inherent personality compatibilities between the various parties involved, Gottman tends to stay away from personality typing and to emphasize general skills that assist in giving any relationship, no matter how strained by the conflicting personality characteristics of its members, a better survivability percentage. A hybrid, active approach to avoiding break-ups might start with personality typing, but then move on to both generic relationship management approaches (Gottman, Goleman) and approaches that are more tailored to the specific personality being encountered.

A number of books have focused on how various external signals, such as consumer spending habits and choices in clothing, can signal our personality types to perceptive observers. A brief sample of recent works in this field would include Snoop: What Your Stuff Says About You, by evolutionary psychologist Sam Gosling (which includes a good description of the Brunswik lens model that was mentioned in an earlier post about decision-making under uncertainty---much more about the Brunswik lens in the future); Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are , by Rob Walker; and Spent, by the ever-insightful Geoffrey Miller.

I would also draw a distinction between exchange-based relationship management skills and persuasion-based relationship management skills. An exchange-based approach, such as the ones offered by Gottman and Goleman, is meant to ultimately benefit both parties. It represents a positive-sum game; the intention is to find or create a win-win solution. A persuasion-based approach, on the other hand, is meant to benefit the persuader; the person on the other side of the table may benefit, too, but the target's benefit is not necessary for a persuasion-based approach to declare victory. The intention is for one side, the side using the persuasion technology, to win.

A short list of disciplines and professions that employ or try to employ systematic persuasion technologies of one description or another would include:

-corporate communications (presentations, negotiations, auctions, neuromarketing)
-persuasion psychology (Cialdini being the leader in the field)
-"social engineering" (penetration testers and so-called "Pick-Up Artists")
-illusion (some trial lawyers, stage magicians, cold-reading psychic charlatans)
-the study of etiquette and manners, particularling in pro-dueling societies
-anthropology (Fisher, Hall and his Proxemics)

We also have skills that may be termed "Persuasion Countermeasures", and these are concerned with detecting deception and manipulation attempts by others. Countermeasures tend to come from military, law-enforcement, and intelligence agency interrogation techniques that have been modified for use when the interrogator does not enjoy a captive subject. I have found a few books dealing with body-language and responses to be particularly interesting (for example, a former FBI Special Agent named Joe Navarro has made a second career out of teaching high-stakes poker players better ways to read tells, and his books are informative and fun. Principles of The Kinesic Interview and Interrogation by Stan Walters is another. There are many out there and I can put together a list of favorites if there is interest).

(Just for a brief tangent in this area: a group of former CIA interrogators and case officers formed a company called Business Intelligence Advisors ((BIA)) to teach countermeasure skills in the corporate world. BIA has codified a system of nonverbal and verbal deception-detection techniques it calls "tactical behavior assessment", or TBA. The story goes that the founders left the Agency because they disagreed with the Bush Administration's policy on special physical measures ((i.e., "torture")) in interrogations---not because they disagreed with physical pain on moral grounds, but because they felt that it would be used by unprofessional/incompetent interrogators and lead to bad intelligence ((presumably they believe torture should generally be trusted only to a small, elite cabal of highly trained interrogators))).

(I became aware of TBA because BIA has made a market in teaching this material to hedge fund managers as part of their ongoing professional development, but BIA certainly has a number of other interesting clients, including some investment banks and Cascade Investments, the personal private-equity firm of Bill Gates. It is normally used by analysts setting out to perform due diligence on potential investments---to uncover deceptions being put forth by senior management teams. I personally have some misgivings about the way that it is being occasionally over-marketed as "foolproof" because I don't think TBA will necessarily work well on the most dangerous, evil-genius, Lex Luthor or Victor von Doom-type uber-criminal masterminds ((who will probably have consumed all of this educational material, anyway, and will know a lot more about this stuff than the analysts themselves do)). It is ultimately an enhancement that gives the user a probabilistic edge in some situations---maybe a CFO is clearly nervous about a line-item on an annual report, perhaps an unfunded liability, and an analyst can tell that the executive is lying and trying to give a bad situation a positive spin. Even with my reservations about some of the marketing hype, I do think that TBA is a very sophisticated and interesting program, and I'd recommend the Principles of the Kinesic Interview book, Cialdini's books, the Navarro stuff, and a few other pieces to anyone who wants a good sense of what TBA is about, but cannot attend a BIA-run class right now).

(Marvel's Victor von Doom claims that he is affable, comedic...just a "misunderstood social scientist" cursed with an unfortunate nickname ((one that he intensely dislikes and fears can make him seem cold and difficult)). Does he deserve our sympathy? Would he be an easy one for an analyst to read?)

The persuasion technology work is tremendously fun to talk about and it consists of a variety of tricks and techniques, some of which seem to be aimed at those of significant intellectual deficit and others of which appear to have more widespread application. Because they are so entertaining, some of these will be the subjects of future posts. However, I would argue that they are not particularly effective, at least in the long run, unless they are built on a fundamental capacity for genuine, good-faith rapport development, and an interest in forming a better understanding of other human beings. The parlor tricks and games can trick or deceive in the short-run and the countermeasures are certainly very valuable if you work among the "morally flexible" or deceptive, but the primary goal should be to be more skilled at forming mutually-beneficial, long-term relationships.

COMING NEXT: The next blog post will be on Gottman's prescription, his concept of a "relationship cure" that can mitigate the effects of the Four Horsemen, amygdala flooding, and the other destroyers. I will also give my initial thoughts on the potential for building an integrated model for interpersonal skill development. This model builds on the great work done by several people we have discussed, including Helen Fisher, Harry Browne, Daniel Goleman, and John Gottman.


I will close this one out on an upbeat note of Spanish guitar, with a clip of a great musical partnership in action:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

True Romance

(Bernini, Apollo and Daphne)


Today's post features the work of Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers. Fisher is an authority on romantic love and its association with neurotransmitters and hormonal release, and she differentiates herself from others in the genre by applying scientific methodology to the issues of mate selection, courtship, and long-term pair-bonding.

(fascinating anthropologist Helen Fisher gets my vote for membership on the "top ten conversationalists in the world to invite to a party" list)

In Why We Love, Fisher notes that there are three brain systems associated with love: 1) a lust system which triggers sexual attraction and the desire to reproduce; 2) a romantic love system which focuses courtship efforts on a single mate and provides a narcotic-like euphoria during that phase of the relationship; and 3) an attachment system that keeps the pair-bond together long enough to successfully raise children.

One of her theories is that both the romantic love and the pair-bonding systems are part of the human evolutionary heritage that involve the heightened vulnerability of women during late pregnancy and young motherhood. Bipeds are particularly at risk because of the awkward ways in which they must carry their young. "So as our forebears adopted life on the dangerous ground, pair-bonding became imperative for females and practical for males. And monogamy---the human habit of forming a pair-bond with one individual at a time---evolved."

Things became harder for women because of the large size of the infant's head relative to the female birth canal, a painful "obstetrical dilemma" that placed the size and shape of the human pelvis (to enable upright walking) against our large brain size. Nature's selected solution (and it was imperfect---mortality rates for both mother and child were still quite high by animal kingdom standards) was to give birth to children at the earliest safe stage in their development, but this created a totally helpless infant who would continue to be exceptionally vulnerable for many years.


With the origin of big-game hunting, fancy tools and weapons, the harnessing of fire, our growing brains, our tiny helpless babies, our long teenagehood, and our march from Africa into chilly, dangerous northern worlds, our ancestors must have felt intense pressure to find mates they could live with for longer periods of time. Parenting had become too much for one.

With these developments, I believe courtship intensified. Individuals needed to distinguish themselves in new and special ways to attract mates with whom they were genuinely compatible. Men and women had already begun to develop a modicum of verbal ability, artistic verve, humor, inventiveness, courage, and many other human gifts in order to survive on the open plains, as well as the brain circuitry to appreciate these skills in others. Now suitors increasingly used these talents to display their usefulness and good genes to potential lovers, too. Those being wooed responded, due to their pre-existing preferences for these skills.

With this greater need to seek and choose a long-term partner, I think the brain circuitry for romantic love emerged.

(historically accurate figurine rendition of helpless, timid early hominid female, operating on African savannah, humanity's Environment of Evolutionary Adaptedness ((EEA)))

Patterns in Divorce

While gathering divorce data from 58 diverse human societies, Fisher found an interesting pattern: couples who divorced tended to do so in the fourth year of marriage, in their middle twenties and/or with a single dependent child. As she looked further into the subject, she found evidence of serial monogamy all over the animal kingdom (i.e., situations in which a pair-bond stays together only long enough to raise a child through infancy).

From Fisher:

This principle also appears to apply to people. In traditional societies, the lifeway of continual exercise, a lean diet, and low body weight coupled with the habit of nursing an infant for extended periods around the clock inhibits regular ovulation for several years after childbirth. Among these societies are the !Kung Bushmen of southern Africa, the Australian Aborigines, the Gainj of New Guinea, the Yanomamo of Amazonia, and the Netsilik Eskimos; women in these cultures tend to bear their young about four years apart. As a result, anthropologists think that four-year birth intervals were the regular pattern of birth spacing during our long human prehistory.

Thus the duration of human birth spacing is similar to the general duration of worldwide marriages that end in divorce.

Vasopressin and the Anti-Cheating Gene Code

Fisher writes that neuroscientists studying prairie voles (small mammals that form pair-bonds soon after puberty and mate for life) have an extra bit of DNA on the gene that controls for the distribution of vasopressin receptors in the brain, a "bit of DNA that is not present in their promiscuous, asocial cousins, montane voles. These scientists took this tiny piece of DNA out of prairie voles and inserted it into some highly promiscuous male mice. Sure enough, these mice began to form close monogamous relationships with particular females."

Some people (although not all, Fisher is quickly to note) carry this same extra bit of DNA on the vasopressin coding gene.

(despite his pleas and Patrick Bateman hairstyle, John Edwards failed to win over the important prairie vole constituency. In exit polls, the small, loyal mammals cited his lack of vasopressin receptors as a key obstacle to him winning their votes)

Functional MRI Imaging and Love

To explore the activation of brain circuits in the love-drunk, Fisher and her team conducted fMRI scan research on the brains of people who had recently fallen in love, and she found that a potent chemical cocktail was at work. She describes her finds in Why We Love:

The result was what I was looking for. I had hypothesized, as you know, that romantic love is associated with elevated levels of dopamine and/or norepinephrine. The VTA (ventral tegmental area) is a mother lode for dopamine-making cells. With their tentacle-like axons, these nerve cells distribute dopamine to many brain regions, including the caudate nucleus. And as this sprinkler system sends dopamine to many brain parts, it produces focused attention, as well as fierce energy, concentrated motivation to attain a reward, and feelings of elation, even mania---the core feelings of romantic love.

No wonder lovers talk all night or walk till dawn, write extravagant poetry and self-revealing e-mails, cross continents or oceans to hug for just a weekend, change jobs or lifestyles, even die for one another. Drenched in chemicals that bestow focus, stamina, and vigor, and driven by the motivating engine of the brain, lovers succumb to a Herculean courting urge.

That "inflammable matter" that Founding Father George Washington spoke of is, at least in part, dopamine churning up the caudate nucleus and other parts of the brain's reward system---a primordial brain network that drives the lover to focus his or her attention on life's grandest prize---a mate who may pass their DNA toward eternity.

Personality Compatibilities Drive Long-Term Pair-Bonding Success

It is in her work with Internet match-making site (a division of that I find Helen Fisher to perform at her applied best. Fisher was hired as the scientific consultant to the internet match-making site and she set about going through an exhaustive mate-selection/dating database (approximately 40,000 men and woman)to conduct statistical decomposition and look for patterns that emerged in terms of usefulness for predicting success and failure rates.

Note that Fisher's mandate was to define success by long-term pair-bonding, not by immediate sexual attraction or exciting courtship. Her findings strongly supported the widely held idea that long-term relationships are successful because of the personality characteristics involved, and these personality characteristics are, in turn, highly sensitive to brain chemistry: "In fact, after doing extensive research on the biological underpinnings of personality types, I have come to believe that each of us expresses a unique mix of four broad personality types. Moreover, our primary personality type steers us toward specific romantic partners. Our biological nature whispers constantly within us to influence who we love."

Rather than using the popular MBTI, as evolutionary psychologist and Mating Mind author Geoffrey Miller tends to, Fisher (who does still use MBTI, but found it misleading for mate-choice pattern matching)created a more streamlined and accessible model that was linked explicitly to known neural circuits and established relationships between neurotransmitters, hormones, and personality expressions. Her work links nicely with Panksepp's "emotional command systems", which we will get to in the future.

Just as an aside, there is a natural bridge between Fisher's categories and the MBTI: David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates have written about how the sixteen personality types described by MBTI collapse to four major "Temperament" types when it comes to the majority of relationships (management, mating, parenting, teaching, learning, and attitudes about money). The four types---two intuitives (Intuitive-Feeling, or NF; Intuitive-Thinking, or NT) and two sensing (Sensing-Judgmental, or SJ; Sensing-Perceiving, or SP)---correspond very well to Fisher's Big Four. In Fisherian terms, NFs are Negotiators, SJs are Builders, NTs are Directors, and SPs are Explorers.

At first I thought that I would find Fisher's taxonomy to be overly simplistic and far too general to be particularly useful, my standard reactions to pop-psychology personality blueprinting, but I was very pleased to find that her work is substantially based in brain chemistry and that she offers appropriate disclaimers to avoid slavish devotion to any one simplified model. The coarse, generalized nature of this or any other model is obviously a potential weakness if it is linked to false precision, but the beauty of Fisher's approach to personality types for mate-matching purposes is its elegant simplicity. We know that human personalities are too complex and subtle to fit completely into a 2x2 matrix diagnostic scheme, but broad strokes can be captured by such a model that can serve as a quick reference tool and springboard for further, more sophisticated and elaborate analytical efforts down the road.

Fisher's Four Primary Personality Types

Fisher recalls:

On impulse, I listed some of the personality traits I knew were associated with specific genes in the dopamine system: the propensity to seek novelty; the willingness to take risk; spontaneity; heightened energy; curiosity; creativity; optimism; enthusiasm; mental flexibility. I decided to call those men and women who expressed the traits associated with this biology Explorers.

...individuals who inherited particular genes in the serotonin system tend to be calm, social, cautious but not fearful, persistent, loyal, fond of rules and facts and orderly. They are conventional, the guardians of tradition. And because these men and women are also skilled at building social networks and managing people in family, business, and social situations, I dubbed those who had inherited this constellation of genetic traits Builders.

I also studied testosterone. Although testosterone is often associated with males, I knew that both men and women are capable of expressing particularly strong activity in this neural system. Moreover, those who inherit this chemistry tend to be direct, decisive, focused, analytical, logical, tough-minded, exacting, emotionally contained and good at strategic thinking. They get to the point. Many are bold and competitive. They excel at figuring out machines, mathematical formulas or other rule-based systems. Many are good at understanding the structure of music, too. I named these people Directors.

Last in my store of biological knowledge were some of the traits linked with estrogen. Women and men with a great deal of estrogen activity tend to see the big picture: they connect disparate facts to think contextually and holistically, expressing what I call "web thinking". They are imaginative. They display superior verbal skills and excel at reading postures, gestures, facial expressions and tones of voice, known as "executive social skills". They are also intuitive, sympathetic, nurturing, mentally flexible, agreeable, idealistic, altruistic and emotionally expressive. I christened people of this broad biological type Negotiators.

Fisher states that few individuals display "pure" personalities---most of us are a mix of two of the personality classes, although one tends to dominate to at least some degree (by convention, she capitalizes the letters of the dominant class when describing a compound personality). A relatively small percentage of individuals are equal mixes of all four.

Positive and Negative Traits Associated with each Type

A) Explorers are by nature creative sensation-seekers who crave autonomy and novelty. Intensely curious, they have difficulty following set schedules, routines, and rules, and are given to occasional episodes of extravagant generosity and optimism. They are likely to hold permissive political and social views and to be atheists or agnostics, and they are the least judgmental of Fisher's four types.

Fisher notes that: "Psychologists measure focus by the strength and persistence of your orienting reflex. This reflex comes in three varieties: initial focused attention, divided attention, and sustained attention. Explorers are poor at sustaining their attention unless they are especially interested. But when the sensation seekers are first exposed to a new stimulus, they exhibit a strong initial orienting reflex---they focus their attention rapidly and earnestly....specific genes in the dopamine system (DRD2 and DRD3) can be thanked for this agility at focusing short term."

On the down side, Explorers "can become narcissistic or reclusive when forced into tedious social schedules...they can be unpredictable and unreliable...curiosity can override their sense of responsibility. ...Explorers can be poor planners...outrageously late...disorganized...contempt for schedules. Some will also find fault with the Explorer's lack of introspection...So Explorers can also appear emotionally shallow, particularly to Negotiators, who are highly introspective."

Fisher explains that Explorers, having a low-threshold for boredom, can become addicted to sex/pornography, gambling, drugs, and alcohol more easily than members of the other personality types. They also seem to be able to fall both into and out of love fairly easily, which can create a sort of paranoid, bunker mentality in those who are mating with Explorers (the issue may even be amplified when Explorers mate with other Explorers, because both recognize and understand the inherent dangers of the personality type very well).

I will also note quickly here that most of the traits found in Explorers are also found---albeit to a magnified degree---in intelligent sociopaths. The strong initial orienting reflex that Fisher describes, for example, is also revealed in the sociopath's almost hypnotically intense interpersonal style when trying to charm a new target (the intense gaze with lower-than-average blink rate and the engimatic "Mona Lisa" smile are typically suggested as physical manifestations). We will deal with sociopaths extensively in future posts.

(Fisher's model would predict that a couple of hypersexual, jock-aesthete EXPLORER/Director types like Mr. & Mrs. Smith would be very happy in novel, dynamic situations, such as gunfights, summit attempts, Las Vegas exotic dancing clubs, and rain forest expeditions, but they would also become irritable and tense with each other during tedious, day-to-day domestic scenarios. The particular personality combination involved will crave independence, freedom, and autonomy, so this would be a "partnership of natural loners")

B) Builders, according to Fisher, "tend to be loyal and conscientious; duty, respectability, and proper moral conduct are particularly important to them. Builders are also conventional; they admire and follow social norms and customs. They respect authority, follow rules and enjoy making plans and keeping schedules. They think concretely; Builders are often literal, detail-oriented, and orderly, as well as cautious but not fearful. ...And Builders are superb at managing people---at work, in the family and in their various social circles."

Fisher attributes the Builder's "pillar of society" attributes to serotonin, the oldest neurotransmitter of all. Serotonin elevates estrogen levels in regions of the brain that influence thinking and memory, can trigger the release of pair-bonding/empathy chemical oxytocin, can suppress testosterone activity in the amygdala, and can suppress dopamine activity that would otherwise lead to impulsiveness, even recklessness.

Builders tend to be social and are the most given to religiosity, conservative politics, traditional "family values", and spirituality of the four groups.


To Builders, details matter. These people remember people's names, the birthdays of friends and relatives, details about neighbors and colleagues, and the exact date, time, and location of specific family or community affairs...if you interrupt them, finish their sentences for them or ask questions that appear superfluous, a Builder is likely to think that you are not interested or listening. To them, tangents and side conversations are frustrating distractions...Their jokes also reflect their need for order, predictability, precision and closure...not surprisingly, Builders make good managers and administrators. They follow the rules, stick to the facts and pay attention to details; they are reliable, persistent and conscientious; and they reach out to those around them, building and maintaining their social ties...yet another trait associated with serotonin. People who take serotonin boosters become more cooperative during group tasks.

On the down side, Builders can easily become dogmatic and intolerant of other lifeways or approaches. The respect for authority can lead to blind obedience and a willingness to commit despicable acts if such acts are cloaked in a group "harmony" narrative. They are frugal by nature and this can turn into miserly stinginess at times, and they can miss political, economic, and social subtleties because they are predisposed to see the world in adversarial, Manichean terms of good vs. evil.

C) Directors are the driven, competitive Type A personality types. Fueled by testosterone and configured for decisive action and high spatial ability, intelligent Directors are good at figuring out how systems work.

Fisher: Psychologist Simon Baron-Cohen distinguishes two gender differences in patterns of thinking, which he refers to as systematizing and empathizing. Systematizing is the propensity to construct and analyze systems, from building bridges or fixing motorcycles to studying the ecology of a pond. Empathizing is the ability to identify with and respond appropriately to another's thoughts and feelings; empathetic people are intuitive and compassionate, Baron-Cohen further maintains that systematizers express more testosterone and are largely men, while empathizers express more estrogen and are more often women. But, as he says, some men and women are equally proficient at both empathizing and systematizing; and some women excel at systematizing, while some men excel at empathizing...women who experienced high levels of testosterone in the womb are more likely to pursue male-dominated occupations and achieve higher-status jobs. But they are less likely to marry, and they have fewer children.

(I would add to this by making the suggestion that, from a young age, female Directors will probably find it easier in many ways to have friendships with men, and will go through a "tomboy" stage that may or may not persist).

Directors, being competitive, logical, and aggressive, will see their environments in terms of dominance hierarchies and may become fascinated with authority. Spirals of uncontrolled dominance matching can lead to emotional, even physical violence. As Fisher says, "The need to achieve even permeates their leisure hours. They want to lift heavier weights, jog faster, or play a better hand of poker. And when they disappoint themselves, they can be very self-critical...many Directors have almost no respect for diplomas, references or credentials, either...Coupled with this hunger for autonomy and independence, the Director is competitive and aggressive. Explorers, Builders, Directors, and Negotiators probably exhibit no real difference in internal competitiveness, the desire to meet personal goals and display excellence. But high-testosterone men and women score higher in external competitiveness, the willingness to elbow others aside to win."

Although testosterone correlates negatively with socialization and Directors do not seek a wide circle of friends (Fisher notes that Einstein, an intellectual Director, was a loner his whole life), they are capable of great feats of heroic altruism. Fisher says that "Individuals with high levels of testosterone are more likely than other types to dash into a burning building to save a stranger, attack an armed bully with nothing but their fists, or brave a hurricane or tornado to save an abandoned dog...I suspect many Explorers share this heroic impulse because they are so spontaneous and energetic."

On the negative side, Directors can be extremely abrasive and given to verbal attacks, and may attempt to justify this behavior as being territorial or "Alpha". Viewing the social world as an endless series of competitive dominance-ladder situations can make for psychological exhaustion, frustration, anger, even depression. The emotional containment of the Director is not the truly limited emotional expression range of the hardcore Explorer; the Director is prone to a form of emotional flooding linking with something that Panskepp calls the "RAGE circuit." High exposure to fetal testosterone makes an individual less likely to be able to pick up on social cues, even to be able to effectively express feelings of compassion. Intense jealousy and a propensity for generalized rage may be masked in social situations that have political or status consequences, only to lead to Directors showing their true colors and becoming quite abusive when back behind closed doors.

D) Negotiators are what is normally described as "naturally good with people." They are holistic, big-picture thinkers who tend to synthesize data and look for patterns, and disparate individual facts do not satisfy them intellectually. Fisher says that, "Another outstanding trait about Negotiators is their curiosity about fact, Negotiators want to create some form of intimacy with just about everyone they meet...when a relationship is not personal, authentic, and caring, Negotiators are not interested in it."

Negotiators strive for group harmony and delight in match-making activities. They are intuitive hosts and possess the highest levels of empathy, agreeableness, and executive social function of the four personality meta-categories.

From Fisher: does estrogen enable Negotiators to do their web thinking? With brain wiring. The brain's two hemispheres are connected by millions of nerve fibers, and individuals who were exposed to more estrogen in the womb have more connections between these brain halves. Estrogen also builds more nerve connections between distant regions within each hemisphere. In short, fetal estrogen constructs a well-connected brain---contributing to the Negotiator's ability to collect and integrate a broad range of information.

...Negotiators must connect on a deeply personal level, as I could see among Negotiators on On this site, I featured the cover of a book showing a man and woman on a sunny balcony overlooking a distant field. The man in the photo is walking away, and the woman is watching him go. Both have their back to the viewer. I asked members of, "If you were a publisher and had to choose a title for this book, what would it be?" They were given four selections. Explorers picked the title "Adventures on the Rhine"; Builders chose "Anatomy of Friendship"; and Directors preferred "Power Plays". But Negotiators chose "Things Left Unsaid."

This drive to connect is linked with estrogen and oxytocin---a chemical produced, stored and triggered largely by estrogen. Women tend to have much more oxtytocin activity than men. And a great deal of data show that, on average, most women are more interested in cooperation and interpersonal harmony than most men. They more regularly cast themselves in a web of friendships, then they work to keep these ties intact.

On the negative side, Negotiators are highly emotional people and subject to depression and neuroticism. They can be indecisive to the point of pathology. The need for social connection can make them appear nosy and intrusive, and they can have difficulty shutting up. Conversations can be disjointed. Negotiators can also be given to judgmental analysis of the motives and flaws of other people, can hold grudges for many months, can be overly critical of those who do not share their communication values, and can fail to show proper respect for the privacy and autonomy of others.

Why Opposites Attract...but Birds of a Feather, Flock Together

Fisher found a fairly strong pattern in the database: two types, Explorers and Builders, tended to want to bond with people like themselves (i.e., Explorers wanted other Explorers and Builders wanted other Builders); and the other two types, Directors and Negotiators, preferred to bond with each other. Explorers seek a romantic partnership based around the pursuit of freedom and adventure, Builders want a traditional family with conservative values, Directors and Negotiators want a mate who complements them well and has natural strengths where they have weaknesses.

If there is a dependable place where personalities would clash, it would be between Explorers and Builders. Perhaps the most intense issues would be between EXPLORER/Director and BUILDER/Director compound personalities, because both would be aggressive and willful in their opposing views. Inherently compatible combinations would be EXPLORER/Director and EXPLORER/Negotiator; BUILDER/Director and BUILDER/Negotiator; DIRECTOR/Explorer and NEGOTIATOR/Explorer; and DIRECTOR/Builder and NEGOTIATOR/Builder.


Explorers seek someone who will go adventuring with them, in conversation, in bed, around town or around the world---a "playmate"...they regard courting as entertainment...they watch less television than other personality types...and they have many interests. Explorers can adapt to almost any courtship situation; they blend in. And because they are friendly and enthusiastic, and have little interest in rules or schedules and no desire to control others, they can make a date feel comfortable quickly. Explorers are also spontaneosly generous, often giving presents early in a relationship...Explorers find self-disclosure difficult...they are the most sexual of the four types...psychologists have found that Explorers have more sex with more partners than the other types...and Explorers are most likely to agree with the statement "Sex is an essential part of a successful relationship."

Builders are the most likely of the four types to express what the Greeks call pragma, love based on compatibility and common sense, pragmatic love. If Explorers seek entertainment, and Directors want a partner with a similar intellect, and Negotiators must have a deep personal connection, Builders seek a stable and predictable team player, someone who shares their fidelity to a family and tradition---a "help mate"...For Builders, courtship is serious business. They believe in good manners, old-fashioned courtesy, punctuality, and well-arranged schedules. Builders are likely to open doors for women, cook for men, be on time and make concrete plans for the evening. They send flowers, cards, and candy...people often become attracted to a Builder when they are ready to settle down and begin a family...Builders are the least sexual of the four types---a great deal of evidence has shown that elevated activity in the serotonin system can inhibit sexual desire.

Directors approach dating the same way they approach their other interests, by rationally analyzing their hopes, needs and intentions. Foremost, they seek a partner who shares their goals, as well as someone who is eager to exchange ideas, build theories and talk about science, philosophy, politics, history, or whatever interests them. They seek a "mind mate." ...To balance out their forthright style and tendency to make decisions quickly, Directors also gravitate to people who weigh alternatives, listen actively, handle conflicts deftly, and have other well-honed social skills...Directors tend to seek mates who are emotionally expressive...they gravitate to individuals---often Negotiators---who have empathy and intellectual complexity to handle their sometimes forceful personality....many have little dating experience in their youth, and they can be socially awkward...on a date a Director is capable of treating you with benign neglect if he or she doesn't envision a future with you...if Directors find themselves in a dead-end relationship, they end it abruptly....they have a take-charge style. They like to debate, and spar. Directors have a high sex drive, a trait associated with testosterone...(however) most don't enjoy "sleeping around" while single.

Negotiators seek the ideal partner---someone with whom they can make an intensely intimate, deeply meaningful, inspiring and spiritual connection: a "soul mate." And when they find him or her, they work tirelessly to promote harmony with this cherished companion, the love of their life. Negotiators are popular with all types because they are flexible, appreciative, affectionate, good at reading others' thoughts and feelings, empathetic...prefer to go out with one person at a time and to explore the depths of this potential partnership...Negotiators are often the type that stops dating for periods of time. To them, dating isn't "fun"; it is a true giving of themselves and a journey deep into the psyche of another---all for the high purpose of building a bond for all eternity. It's no surprise that, among the members of, Negotiators, like Builders, are highly likely to say they are seeking marriage or a long-term committed relationship....Negotiators are the most romantic of the four must be mixed with romance, communication, and emotional is not casual for Negotiators; if they engage in it, they expect a meaningful relationship to develop...they can idealize a partner, regarding him or her as perfect. Then, as they get to know their mate, they can begin to see their partner's imperfections and become disillusioned. Their fantasy is tarnished. For Negotiators, sex and love are utterly intertwined.

Mate Selection and the Approach/Withdrawal Continuum

Fisher does not mention this, but I felt that her findings regarding mating preferences and compatibility could be at least partially explained by the approach system/withdrawal system concept that I mentioned briefly in my birthday post. If the limbic system is organized to provide emotional experiences that help us to move towards good things and away from bad, then we would anticipate that those who have a bias towards approach will have generally positive expectations when encountering novelty, and those who have a bias towards withdrawal will be far more conservative. If there was an approach-withdrawal continuum, Explorers would occupy the far approach-biased side and Builders would occupy the far withdrawal-biased side, so we would expect the two personality types to have fundamental disagreements on a wide range of lifestyle and worldview topics. Negotiators and Directors would be more towards the center, with Negotiators probably edging slightly closer to approach and Directors towards withdrawal (because their competitive nature sees more threats in the environment).

Thoughts on Practical Applications of Fisher's Taxonomy

After reading her books and spending a bit of time reflecting on what to do with the new information, I came to the conclusion that there are at least three immediately obvious ways to use this material in one's own life. I would loosely define them as:

1. Self-Diagnosis
2. Self-Improvement
3. Rapport Enhancement Skills

1. The first modality, Self-Diagnosis, is probably also the most common: if single, simply go to (or another site that features the test) and one of Fisher's tests, identify your own category (if it isn't obvious from reading her book---I know that I could identify myself almost immediately), and then see who your natural compatibilities are with (an internet match-making site could try to do this for you, I suppose---I have no experience with that stuff, so I don't know how it all works). Now look specifically for someone who meets those specifications if you want to try to expicitly harness the power of personality matching to your side (strong-form of the argument), or just try to use the information to guide how you behave and to better anticipate likely problem areas (weak-form of the argument).

If already in a relationship, you and your partner can both take a Fisher personality inventory and then discuss whether or not her observations seem to fit what the two of you see in real life. If there is a natural tendency for some disagreements, Fisher's model may help to objectify the problems and to show how brain chemistry is ultimately involved. Perhaps the knowledge can help to inform better problem-solving approaches. No reasonable person(certainly not Helen Fisher) would argue that someone should dismantle a working relationship based on the results of one of these tests, so extremists should probably be careful of reading too much in the way of predetermined outcomes into personality-compatibilities analysis.

2. The second way to use the Fisher material, Self-Improvement, would entail looking at the weak areas or natural problems of one's personality and then taking steps to mitigate them. For example, an Explorer personality type like myself could be honest about having difficulty following schedules and sticking to plans in a disciplined way, so we would need to put simple, relatively effortless systems in place to aid in the execution of routine tasks. The more conscious effort that I require to follow rules, the less likely it is that I will be able to do so. I also need to channel my need for novelty into pursuits that are productive, or at least neutral.

A Director could recognize that social graces and tact are often a problem. A Negotiator could see that he or she can be annoyingly emotive and dramatic to many people. A Builder could see how he or she comes across as boring, dogmatic, and unimaginative sometimes. The possibilities are nearly limitless.

In terms of relationship management, I now organize my thoughts by splitting most romantic partnerships into three archetypal activity zones:

A) Daily life (which is mostly about maintenance and recurring, everyday tasks)

B) Weekends (which are about continuing the courtship aspects of the relationship)

C) Holidays (which are opportunities for building shared memories and greater depth)

A pair of Explorers are going to probably have difficulty with the sharing of daily, routine chores, and are going to live, to some extent, for weekend getaways, interesting projects, and adventure holiday trips. Knowing this, they may be able to increase the individual autonomy and independence they give each other during the week, and to focus on saving their best for each other on the weekends. An intense sex life would be absolutely critical to these people.

For Builders, the opposite would probably be true. The day-to-day living is the heart of the relationship, and where the most important bonding experiences take place. Rather than doing maintenance activities separately in order to retain an exotic, interesting mystique for one another, as Explorers might want to, Builders would probably delight in sharing household chores and doing similar, community-related activities (church, socializing with co-workers, family picnics and BBQs, etc.) on the weekends.

Directors and Negotiators are probably going to be somewhere in the middle on this, but we can surmise that they will enjoy spending time in fairly intense conversations with each other (Directors wanting to talk about books, concepts, and thoughts, Negotiators wanting to talk about feelings, experiences, and emotions). My guess would be that a lot of their romantic partnerships will be based on conversation around the dinner table, or in quiet restaurants, coffee shops, wine bars and the like. A Director-Negotiator pair should probably not emphasize large group-participation activities (as, say, Builders would), because both can become jealous fairly easily, Directors see competition around every corner and want to dominate conversations, and neither particularly likes typical group banter.

3. The third way to use the Fisher material would be to come up with personality-inventory questions that could be used as a sort of subtle interview process in a dynamic social environment, with the goal of figuring out another person's approximate personality type as quickly as possible. The intention is not to have a completely accurate model of every quirk and detail; a dynamic approach is looking to get to a frame of reference quickly and then build from there.

After making a best-guess determination, the person using the material would then try to calibrate himself or herself to the new person's personality type---to adapt to the situation like a social chameleon by selecting a compatible approach from some kind of drop-down menu of options. In other words, the Fisher matrix would be used tactically rather than strategically. This kind of thing goes by many names, but I will just call it rapport enhancement for the time being. It requires being able to amplify and submerge aspects of one's own personality in the hopes of building a greater *initial* level of rapport, so at times this can verge on deliberate efforts at masking and manipulation (note: because they realize early in life that they are not wired to experience emotions the same way that normal people are, sociopaths---the most dangerous of which are often likened to scorpions in human form---have "floating" public personas and are particularly well-suited to this).

("Who are you?" Simon Templar: "Nobody knows for sure, least of all me." In The Saint, Val Kilmer portrays a borderline-sociopathic professional thief who has mastered the ability to read personality types and calibrate himself to them on the fly)

Rapport enhancement, in turn, has two flavors: diagnostic skills, which require being able to figure out particular things about your subject's personality and life; and non-diagnostic skills, which should have general applicability and work with almost anyone. One of the better places to learn about successful non-diagnostic rapport enhancement is the work of psychologist John Gottman, and this will be the topic of the next post.