A Chat With Love Doctor Dr. Helen Fisher

The Science of Love

Love ain’t easy. Of all the things we know about the mysterious emotion, it’s that romantic complexities reign supreme. And one woman, Dr. Helen Fisher, knows that more than anybody.

Credited as the world’s most proficient relationship guru, the Rutger’s professor pioneered more than her fair share of studies into the realm of the heart.

While some people prefer a psychological approach, Fisher’s background in evolutionary anthropology, she says, offers a more accurate portrayal of amour.

Fisher tells us:

It’s a much broader perspective. You can bring in sociology, anthropology, animal behavior and genetics. You can bring in adaptive mechanisms: why we do thing. The psychological is good, but it doesn’t explain the human animal.

As a neuroscientist, Fisher pioneered new adventures into the brains behind the heart.

Perhaps her most famous study, set forth in her 1992 book, Anatomy of Love, broke relationships down into three self-explanatory “stages”: lust, attraction and attachment. Each stage develops at its own rate, typically playing out over many months, and ends with a deep emotional attachment.

Fisher’s most recent discoveries, however, may offer one of the most interesting – and important – examinations of intimacy. Human hormones apparently influence our personalities. A person with more dopamine, for example, thrives on thrills. Another person with more serotonin, meanwhile, may exhibit more loyalty. Estrogen helps build strong imaginations, while testosterone gives humans a boost of rationality and spatial development.

Considering Fisher’s years studying matters of the heart, it should come as no surprise that gay-friendly dating site Chemistry.com asked her to develop their match making questionnaire. Armed with her love of love, Fisher worked tirelessly to develop a fifty-six question survey. Unlike Chemistry.com’s litigious competitor, eHarmony, Fisher’s test revolves around actual, verifiable facts. There’s no hocus pocus here. Just good old fashioned love science.

We caught up with Fisher at her Manhattan for a little chat about the ins and outs of love, lust and everything in-between. Not afraid to admit ignorance, Fisher’s one of the most welcoming, warm and honest people we’ve interviewed to date. And, more than anything else, she’s interested in more than results. She’s interested in the truth.

Queerty: With regard to chemistry.com – you were brought on to help structure the way it’s set up, to bring people together. Personality is pretty easy to test, but how do you inject the hormonal part into a website?

Dr. Helen Fisher: I ask questions to find out. Okay, there are these four “types” – explorer, builder, the negotiator and the director, associated respectively with dopamine, serotonin, estrogen and testosterone. You can be high on both estrogen and testosterone. It’s not a positive and a negative. They don’t fight each other. We have over a hundred different known transmitters and hormones that affect the brain, but the vast majority just keep us blinking, keep us breathing, etc. There are not that many that are associated with personality traits, and these are the four that are associated with personality traits. Before I read anything about personality, I read about the biology and found these four types. But you asked how I inject them on the internet – I ask both kinds of questions. The very first question is “Do you like to do things at the spur of the moment?” It’s a question that’s all about dopamine. Or, “Do you have more energy than most people?” Dopamine’s associated with energy.

QT: What does dopamine do for a lover?

HF: A lot! Well, I stumbled on the four types. I’m really a neuroscientist. I put 32 people who were madly in love into an MRI brain scanner. When match.com came to me and asked me to create a dating site. At first, I even said to them, “I don’t think you’ve got the right person.” But, I do study the biology of behavior, and I specifically study dopamine. Dopamine – we know the genetics of it – elevated activity in the dopamine channels are associated with risk taking, novelty seeking, spontaneity, creativity, curiosity – often, irreverence, they tend to be more liberal, rather than conservative…. This is the type of person who simply can’t say “no,” to what they want. The high dopamine type is that type of person.

QT: Would that be found in a drug addict?

HF: Yes. Every one of these four types has great attributes and great deficits and the deficits of the high dopamine type are likely to be alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and schizophrenia.

QT: I always read studies, which of course you can’t take too seriously, but there are studies saying gays are more inclined to be drug addicts or are more inclined to have risky sex. Obviously there are social factors to be taken into account, but is there any study of dopamine or any other chemical like that in gay people?

HF: I have no idea. For example, you don’t find the risky sex in gay women, but I think that may be a very different biological system. We hear about all the gays that are copulating under the pier in Province Town, but we don’t hear about all the gays who are settled down. We don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the huge number of swingers and polyamory people and adultery in the straight population. I’ve always felt that gays are just like straights. Who you fall in love with, that would differ, but how you feel when you fall in love – that would be similar. I did a basic study and didn’t find that my gay population chose their mates any differently than the straights. In other words, a high dopamine type is probably going to go for another high dopamine type whether they’re gay or whether they’re straight.

QT: What about the stages of love – lust, attraction and attachment – do those differ?

HF: Well, once again, I wish I knew more about gays, but I don’t want to go with what the common man thinks, because it’s very dangerous.

QT: It’s also dangerous to be researching it.

HF: I suppose so. It will become less so, I hope. I think we’ve all evolved through basic – I don’t call them stages. They are more like – what’s the word – brain systems. The [love stages] can be very unconnected. You can feel deep attachment for one person while you feel intense romantic love for somebody else, while you have a sex drive for a whole lot of people. Before I put the people in the MRI machine, I put 437 Americans in a questionnaire study about romantic love. And my gay population showed more of what I call the sweaty palm syndrome, which is the stammering, feeling very nervous. The gays fall in love exactly the way straights do. Who they choose to love, that will be different, but the way they feel when they love will be the same. The same thing with attachment. Here’s one of the reasons that I don’t understand people are so against gay marriage. They are carting around the same system for attachment as the straights are – no wonder they want to have the same rights!

QT: What about the perception questions? There’s one question where you’re given a hexagon on the left and you have to adjust another hexagon to the same proportions.

HF: The hexagon is a test of testosterone. It’s a test at how good you are with spatial talents. Spatial acuity is in the testosterone system. In fact, you inject testosterone and somebody gets better at finding their car in the parking lot. . I think that evolved because for millions of years, men not only had to go out and track the buffalo, then they had to find their way back home. If you didn’t have any spatial skills, you were cooked. So, it’s in the testosterone system.

There are basically 56 questions that I base this part of you on – I’m bringing the biological part into the mix with these 56 questions. There are fourteen to see what degree you are dopamine, fourteen to see what degree you are serotonin, fouRteen to see to see what degree you are estrogen and fourteen for the testosterone. And then, you know, you get a pie chart to see what degree you are these four things. And then, I started to watch who choose to whom.

QT: There’s no difference between the gay test and the straight test?

HF: Oh, god, no. In fact, I would object seriously to that, because I don’t think gays are any different than straights, but the one preliminary test I did of who choose who, my gay population chose exactly the same as my straight population. No difference.

QT: What about tops and bottoms – passive and aggressive – in gay relationships? Is there any sort of chemical difference?

HF: Um, the data that I’ve read is that some gay men have a much greater level of estrogen.

QT: The bottoms?

HF: Yeah. Those people are going to be more like my negotiator. And the tops are going to be more like, I don’t know what else.

QT: The tops don’t necessarily have more testosterone?

HF: They probably do. It’s all in relation. Let me tell you exactly what I’ve read – they’ve looked at certain professions and they’ve found that gay men in the nursing professions – the caring professions, the passionate professions – do express more estrogen. There’s a biology to being gay, but there’s also a biology to being straight. There’s a biology to everything! However, basic personality remains the same throughout your life course.

But, you know, we can act out of character. For example, you can go out with somebody who requires you to be a certain way and you just respond by being that way.

QT: Why do we do that?

HF: I think you fall in love with somebody for all kinds of reasons. We know that you tend to fall in love with somebody who has the same socioeconomic background, ethnic background. It’s changing, but it’s still dominant. People with the same religion values –

QT: And that’s why you ask questions about whether you think you’re “morally right”?

QT: That’s a serotonin question. The high serotonin will say “yes,” and the other three types will say, “My moral system may not be the same.” To me it’s a ridiculous question, but to the high serotonin types: they’re morally rigid. And they’re running the country.

QT: Do you think that’s an evolutionary development to find one other person?

HF: No. I think that’s human. 97% of animals do not pair up to rear their young. Only 3% do. We do. Even 3 million years ago, our ancestors were forming pair bonds. Now, they weren’t marrying, because that’s a cortical, conscious ritual, but they were forming pair bonds to rear their babies as a group. We’ve evolved this brain system for attachment. I think that gays have it, too. About a month ago, when there was a lot of publicity, I called our CEO and said, “Let’s pull our gay people and look at who they choose”. So that I can say to the press, “The gays choose exactly the same as the straights do”.

QT: And that’s what you’ve found?

HF: We don’t have enough data to say that yet. As soon as enough gays sign up – we didn’t have enough, but the gay population has really increased. As soon as we get to the right numbers, hopefully this summer, I’ll be able to say it, because I’ve been dying to say that to the press.

While Dr. Fisher prefers to look at the evolution of human emotion and subsequent attachment, Chemistry.com’s aforementioned rival, eHarmony, takes a decidedly less scientific – and accurate – approach. Founded by an evangelical Christian named Dr. Neil Clark Warren, eHarmony testifies that its patented approach leads allegedly happy couples down the wedding aisle. In fact, Warren makes no secret of his ultimate goals. Via a 2004 eHarmony press release:

According to Warren, more than 50 percent of marriages end in divorce; another 6 percent separate but stay legally married; and more than 40 percent of those who stay married aren’t happy.

[Warren] gets most excited when he describes his grand vision to lower America’s divorce rate to the single digits. Each percentage point of the divorced population represents about a million people, he said.

“It will be the greatest single social revolution in human history,’ Warren said.

The gays, however, will not be part of this revolution. As this site’s mentioned before, eHarmony refuses to allow gay people into their club. The company, which got its start on Focus on The Family leader James Dobson’s radio show, offers two primary explanations for its anti-gay discrimination.

The first follows an irrationally “legal” line; Warren once told NPR’s Terry Gross, “”same-sex marriage in this country is largely illegal at this time, and we do try to match people for marriage.” A cheap shot, yes, but not quite as cheap as Warren’s next cop out, which directly contradicts Fisher’s research:

I don’t know exactly what the dynamics are [with gay couples]…We’ve done a deep amount of research on about 5,000 married people, but never on people who are same-sex. So we don’t know how to do that, and we think the principles probably are different, and so we’ve never chosen to do it.

Fisher, remember, hypothesizes that there are no differences in the ways gays and straights fall in love. And, unlike eHarmony, Fisher bases her theories years of research, all of which went into Chemistry.com’s 56-point questionnaire. eHarmony, meanwhile, forces users to endure a mind-bogglingly large 436-point survey, that “forces introspection”.

The test, they claim, provides the most comprehensive compatibility available on the world wide web. Their so-called proof comes in the form of the Dyadic Adjustment Scale. Developed by Dr. Graham Spanier in 1976, the DAS allegedly assesses the quality of marriage. To prove their point, eHarmony selected 273 of their couples and evaluated their “happiness together”. Their conclusion?

…eHarmony marrieds indicated a higher degree of happiness, optimism and commitment to the success of their relationship than did other marrieds. As shown in Figure 2 [see below], eHarmony marrieds were notably more likely than other marrieds to indicate that they consider their marriage to be “Very Happy” or “Perfect” (92% versus 74%). In contrast, comparison marrieds were more than twice as likely as eHarmony couples to indicate that they regretted that they married “All the Time” or “Most of the Time” (5.1% versus 2.2%).

eHarmony couples also appeared to be more committed to their marriages than comparison marrieds.

Such findings would prove compelling if they were scientifically backed, but, unfortunately for those duped by Warren, they’re not – a fact that’s not lost on Dr. Fisher.

QT: What do you think about this dyadic adjustment thing that eharmony uses to prove their method’s effectiveness?

HF: First of all, they’ve never published an article on any of their data. The only thing that I know was a paper [from] the psychological association (linked above) and they talked about this DAS test and apparently – I can’t quite remember – they took their own couples that got married and they took random couples who did not meet on eHarmony. They gave them all the DAS test and their results were that their couples were more different from each other than the randoms. More different!! [eHarmony matches] by similarity. These people fall in love in spite of the system of eHarmony, not because of it. The data showed that the couples that got together on eHarmony were more unalike than normal. I don’t want to be dumping on other sites, largely because anywhere you go that you meet people is a good place to go, no question, but there’s no academic proof that those points of compatibility are better for a long-term marriage. No proof. There’s no proof against it and there’s no proof for it. Basically, academics do not know what keeps people together long term. Anybody who tells you they do it either lying or ignorant, because what they find is that we know we tend to go out and marry and are attracted to people who are similar only in a certain amount of ways – socioeconomic background, ethnic background, religious values, same degree of good looks, same degree of intelligence and same degree of education. That’s all they know. Period.

With Dr. Fisher mining the mind, however, hopefully we’ll know more sooner, rather than later. And, when we do, we can take Dr. Warren to task.


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