Helen Fisher on the Chemistry of Romantic Attraction

A new book, Why Him? Why Her? says it's all about our brain chemicals.


Ever wonder why you feel that special connection with a certain someone? Well, Helen Fisher, a Rutgers University anthropologist and author of Why We Love, suspects that it's those inherited traits of temperament that, she says, make up 50 percent of our personalities. (The other half comes from our life experiences—the stuff we can blame our parents for in therapy.) She believes our DNA dictates the chemical makeup of our brains and thus whether we're creative, tradition-minded, good with puzzles and carburetors, or organized to a fault. This then determines to whom we're most attracted.

Helen Fisher: Why Him? Why Her?

Fisher developed a questionnaire that has been used by the online dating site Chemistry.com to match about 5 million Americans. She explains her system in a new book called Why Him? Why Her?: Finding Real Love By Understanding Your Personality Type. She's identified four personalities, one of which she feels predominates in each of us. (The others factor in to lesser degrees.) There's the Explorer, who's driven by the "excitement" brain chemical dopamine and seeks out novelty, adventure, and spontaneity; the Builder, who runs on the "soothing" brain chemical serotonin and tends to be calm, social, and orderly; the Director, who is fueled by the "male" hormone testosterone and is analytical, logical, focused, and tough-minded; and the Negotiator, who is guided by the "female" hormone estrogen to be verbal, imaginative, and compassionate.

Eager to find out just what it is that sends our hearts racing (even when he doesn't look like Brad Pitt and you're no Angelina Jolie), I called Fisher. Of course, if you believe that chemistry just happens and can't be scientifically steered, you might not buy her argument. But here are some edited excerpts:

Is it true like-minded folks attract? A Negotiator and a Negotiator, say?

Well, somewhat, but not always. Explorers go very well with Explorers, and Builders are compatible, but Directors tend to seek out Negotiators and vice versa. I think there are evolutionary reasons for this. Two Builders who are great at teamwork and cherish loyalty, respectability, and following the rules will capitalize on their joint strengths to produce viable offspring. A Director and Negotiator need to pool their resources to provide what the other can't offer. Two Explorers seem like they would never work—after all, who will raise the children? But many have multiple marriages with offspring from various spouses to provide genetic variability. All three combinations work to populate our society. I took your quiz and found out I'm an Explorer and Negotiator with a little Builder sprinkled in. Where does that leave me?

We're all a mixture of two, three, or even four personalities, but you'll probably see that one of them is predominant. Your primary style of thinking and behaving guides you towards certain mates. Most of us make up our minds in the first three minutes of meeting someone whether there's a potential for a relationship. I'm an Explorer, so I know that if I meet a man who's routine-driven—going to church every morning, working at the same office job for 30 years, and mowing his lawn in the suburbs on Saturdays—I'm not going to be interested. I might be, though, if I meet a guy who is planning a backpacking trip to Tibet, reads poetry, and frequents art museums. What if he's a daredevil who rides a motorcycle and sports a six-pack of beer and a rifle to kill moose?

Maybe not, but I'd be more apt to consider him than the guy who lives in the suburbs. Ah, so there's more going on here than brain chemistry?

Of course! If you were being matched on any dating site, including Chemistry.com, they'd want to know your age, where you live, your socioeconomic status, religious background, hobbies, and the like. You could meet the man of your dreams, but if he lives in Montana and doesn't travel and you hate Montana, what's the point?

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