New online dating service favors brain chemistry over interests in making matches.

minds.jpg Credit: Pavel Pospisil

My boyfriend of three (or so) years and I both like watching old movies, cooking and arguing about politics. But, according to’s new science-based online dating service,, these shared pastimes may not be enough for our relationship to survive into our golden years.

Helen Fisher, the Rutgers anthropologist who designed the complex personality test that powers, insists that complementary brain chemistry makes for long-lasting love, not surface similarities.

“We gravitate to people who are similar to us, and we marry people who are similar. But that’s not really what keeps people together,” Fisher said. “Once you know that you’re both Episcopalians, you don’t have to go through this for the next 40 years. It’s been established: We really stick with people because of personality traits rather than values.”

Along with some familiar criteria like religion, race, age and political bent, the questionnaire also assesses spatial reasoning skills and emotional intelligence. One question asks whether the user’s index finger is longer or shorter than his or her ring finger. The comparison measures fetal testosterone activity—a longer ring finger indicates a higher exposure to the hormone in the womb. Fisher says greater levels of testosterone during prenatal development correlate to better spatial skills as an adult.

The test separates users into four basic personality types—Explorers, Builders, Negotiators and Directors—based on the dominant chemical system in their brains. Builders, Fisher said, are people with an especially active serotonin system—serotonin being a mood-regulating neurotransmitter. Builders tend to be to be calm, popular, traditional and conscientious. Explorers have especially high activities of dopamine, which is active in the brain’s pleasure system, and are typically optimistic, spontaneous, creative risk-takers. Negotiators are ruled by estrogen, the primary female sex hormone, and tend to be social, theoretical and imaginative multi-taskers. Directors, with active systems of testosterone, the male sex hormone, are likely to be ambitious, bold, decisive and logical.

Fisher stressed that more than one chemical system could be especially active. So the test further categorizes people with a secondary type. For example, based on my answers, I fit the profile of a Negotiator-Director; my boyfriend is an Explorer-Negotiator.

Fisher emphasized that many different combinations of personality types could make a solid match and that finding a partner on is a complicated process—the site asks you what you liked about past partners, seeking to determine what characteristics you are looking for rather than just matching all Explorers with all Builders. Still, Fisher has some particular theories about which types are generally going to be attracted to one another.

“I do think the Negotiator is going to be quite drawn to the Director, and I think the Director’s going to be quite drawn to the Negotiator,” she said. “And also, I think a very interesting match that we’ll end up seeing quite a few of is the Explorer with the Builder.”

This wasn’t good news. I began to wonder how the Negotiator in me and the Explorer in my man had held together so long. Perhaps we slid by on our secondary tendencies, which are properly in line.

Fisher thinks the Negotiator will benefit from the Director’s social skills, while the latter will appreciate the former’s go-getter attitude. Similarly the Explorer’s spontaneity and the Builder’s stability will complement one another. These types, she said, would not only attract each other, but also continue to be biologically compatible over the course of a lifetime.

“The Negotiator will continue to enchant the Director with her—probably often her—imagination, theoretical views, verbal skills,” said Fisher. “And she’ll be continually enchanted by the Director’s ability to get everything done, and be very inventive about it and bold and direct.”

Eshkol Rafaeli, a relationships specialist and assistant professor of psychology at Barnard College at Columbia University, said the personality theory behind the site sounded overly simplistic.

“Categorizing people into four types is limiting,” Rafaeli said. “The current leading trait theory in psychology says there are at least five major traits, each one of which has multiple levels, and probably can be broken down into many additional types or traits.”

Proponents of other personality theories, Rafaeli said, take into account goals, beliefs and expectations, and would take issue with classifying people into types.

Martha Farah, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania, agreed that Fisher’s theory of complementary types may not be hard scientific fact, but she sees the site as a potential stepping-stone towards a wider acceptance of brain chemistry as a basis for behavior.

“There are grains of scientific truth there, but the relations between neurotransmitter systems and personality traits are not that well understood,” Farah said via e-mail. “If people sign up for this believing that it’s based on solid neuroscience in any direct way, they have been misled.”

“But having said that,” she continued, “I think [the site] represents an interesting application of a general idea that is basically correct, and that will come to play an increasing role in our lives: The idea that who we are and how we get along with others has to do with our brains.”

With Farah further supporting the notion that our brains hold the key to compatibility, I became a trifle concerned about my chemical incongruity with my Explorer-Negotiator beloved. I asked Fisher if she had any Valentine’s Day suggestions for couples who do not have the benefit of complementary chemistry of the mind.

“Do novel things together,” she said. “Be more spontaneous. Do something that’s slightly dangerous. I don’t mean something that’ll kill you, but something exciting, like going swimming at night. Any kind of excitement, novelty, mild danger elevates the activities of the dopamine system, and you’re more likely to sustain a romance.”

Baby, are you up for a relationship-saving tandem bungee jump?

Originally published February 13, 2006


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