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.

Fisher:

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 Chemistry.com (a division of Match.com) 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.

Fisher:

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 people...in 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:

...how 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 Chemistry.com. 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 Chemistry.com, "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 Chemistry.com 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.

Fisher:

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 Chemistry.com, 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 types...sex must be mixed with romance, communication, and emotional intimacy...sex 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 Chemistry.com (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.

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