Cupid's science

Anthropologist Helen Fisher explains what online dating sites can learn from the biology of love -- and what the length of your ring finger says about your sex life.

Published August 20, 2007 11:33AM (EDT)

You've probably seen's magazine and television ads, the ones about people who have been rejected by online matchmaking sites like eHarmony for being gay, depressed, or generally unmarriageable for murkier reasons. In one ad, a young man stares hopefully at heterosexual porn, only to conclude, "Nope, still gay." At Chemistry, spokespeople like to crow, you can "come as you are" (as long as you come as someone who is over 18).

But the aggressive ad campaign isn't the only thing that sets Chemistry apart in the flourishing business of finding love online. The company is an offshoot of Internet meet-market, which has been around since 1994. In 2004, Match approached Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher, whose work on sex, love and the brain had made her a preeminent authority on human mating, about designing a site where, like at the successful but restricted eHarmony, members would not shop blindly for dates, but would be matched with each other based on personality profiles and compatibility.

Fisher developed a theory that human beings fall into four categories: negotiators, directors, explorers and builders, and that your type helps determine who you fall for. According to Fisher's formulation, negotiators are powered by estrogen, intuitive, socially skilled, imaginative and sympathetic; testosterone-fueled directors are focused, ambitious, daring and independent; explorers are dopamine-driven risk-takers who are spontaneous, curious and adaptable; and solid builders have a lot of serotonin that makes them calm, sociable, conscientious and domestically oriented.

Fisher designed, and continues to tweak, the site's lengthy personality questionnaire, on which customers discover what their driving chemical and personality type is by answering wacky questions about the length of their fingers, how they react to public displays of affection, and what kind of doodles they do in work meetings. (While reporting this story, I took Chemistry's personality test, and received a stream of matching profiles. My matches did not seem to differ significantly from those with whom I was set up several years ago while reporting a story on eHarmony, except that my Chemistry matches tended to be geographically closer to New York City. But overall, the profiles I browsed were of guys I was not moved to meet in person. Then again, I am not the world's most enthusiastic dater.)

Fisher, a lifelong academic, seems the unlikeliest online dating entrepreneur, and in the 18 months since Chemistry's launch, has lent the enterprise a kind of punk-wonky sensibility. On Chemistry's Great Mate Debate blog, she trades messages with Match spokesman and sex therapist Ian Kerner, columnist Dan Savage and modesty enthusiast Wendy Shalit. Her entries are sprinkled with references to everything from Chaucer to an East African chimp named Flo, who gets a lot of play despite her bulbous nose and bald pate because she's so confident and happy.

Fisher and Kerner recently stopped by the Salon offices to chat about estrogen, testosterone, the impact of antidepressants on our love lives, the mating habits of elephants, trading sex for food, and what on earth the length of our fingers tells us about our personalities.

Helen, how did you come to be involved with a dating site?

Helen Fisher: When Match invited me in December 2004 to create a new dating site for them, I said, "Are you sure you've got the right person? Because I'm an anthropologist. I've spent my life studying why we're all alike, not why we're different." But I came up with a theory, supplementing what we already knew, for why you fall in love with one person and not another. I wanted to add the Darwinian, biological, evolutionary, chemical component. So I came up with a theory [that there are four personality types] and I designed the core questions on the site. I've studied the first 28,128 people and who they chose to go out with. Did you do the questionnaire?

I did.

HF: What did you end up being?

Oh, I already knew what I'd be. I'm a Negotiator/Explorer.

HF: Oh! I'm the Explorer/Negotiator. But frankly I think I cheat, so I could be a Negotiator/Explorer. Those two could be very interchangeable. Plato came up with these four types, and then Aristotle, and Galen in the second century A.D., and then Carl Jung. We've known about these types for hundreds of years. What I've done is add that biological component.

Did Plato divide them into four categories as well?

HF: Yes. What I call the Explorer he calls the Artisan, what I call the Builder he calls the Guardian, what I call the Negotiator he calls the Idealist, and what I call the Director he calls the Rational. Frankly, I would not have made up new names if I had known the originals. You can't beat Plato.

Ian Kerner: I have a question for Helen, because I was recently at the AASECT [American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists] conference and people were saying that women's sexual response has a lot more to do with emotional attunement at the outset, as opposed to desire, and that initial desire is going to have a broader emotional context for a woman than for men.

HF: Generally women take a broader view of everything, for good Darwinian reasons: Women were the ones that were going to spend nine months having the baby, and most of the time for the first four years raising the baby! So women think of the contingency: "Well, he doesn't have a job. What about 10 years from now?" Women do more long-term thinking.

Does that play into initial attraction, not just a later decision about whether to stay in a relationship?

HF: I don't think we understand much about female sexuality yet. We way underplay men's desire for love and women's desire for just plain sex. Women can have quite a high sex drive. But there's a lot of data that they're a lot less interested in the one-night stand, for good Darwinian reasons.

IK: I was looking at studies of male and female college students who were having a lot of casual sex; the women ended up being much more ambivalent, much more regretful, much more depressed.

HF: I just don't think that casual sex is very casual. Any kind of sexual activity drives up dopamine in the brain, and that can bring you closer to a threshold of romantic love. I also think both sexes often use casual sex trying to trigger these other brain systems. They may tell you it's casual sex, but they're hoping that he likes me or she likes me.

You're talking about all this hormonal response, but how does that relate to someone you meet over an Internet connection?

HF: A lot of people think that Internet dating is unnatural, but I think it is extremely natural, because for millions of years, you might not know that cute boy over at the water hole, but your mother knows his aunt, and you know a lot about him: what he's going to grow up to become, who his relatives are, what his religion is; you know things about him. It's really much more artificial to walk into a bar where you know nothing about the person.

IK: One trend I've noticed lately online is people being much more interested in people's educational backgrounds.

HF: Yeah, particularly men. Men didn't care about women's educational backgrounds in the past. Now they care.

Do they want women to have more or less education than they have?

IK: Equal or superior. It's not the traditional: "Oh my God, she's making more money than me, my ego has been shattered." It's more like, "This is a two-income world we live in, it's going to take both of us to make it."

HF: They also want women closer to their age, and want them to have the same earning power. But you know what? It's not different from the way we always were. We're moving forward toward the kind of people we were a million years ago. For millions of years women commuted to work to gather vegetables, they came home with 60 to 80 percent of the evening meal, the double-income family was the rule. In shedding what we regard as traditional family values, we're actually going back to the real traditional configurations.

What screwed up that balance originally?

HF: Somebody invented the plow. Prior to the plow, women in horticultural societies did the farming with a digging stick and were very powerful. But somebody invented the plow about 5,000 years ago, and it required the strength of men; men began to need to move the rocks, fell the trees, draft big heavy animals. Then the property that got produced was more theirs, and they would bring it to local markets and come back with the equivalent of money. Women got relegated to secondary jobs and having lots of babies, because in farming societies, you needed children as the workforce.

IK: Changing subjects for a minute, I wanted to ask Helen about the fact that my wife says to me, "The only reason I'm still with you is that I like the way you smell." For all the mate-matching systems, aren't there always going to be these intangibles?

HF: Always. I finish my talks by saying "there will always be magic to love." All I'm trying to do is add another component to the mystery. But you never can predict. There could be some tiny aspect of your childhood that will turn you one way or another in love.

IK: Even the smell thing is a genetic index, so if I'm attracted to your smell we're most likely to create the most genetically broad, healthy children. People should be submitting T-shirts to Chemistry.

HF: Somebody actually came to me with a proposal! What I'm discovering on the site is how much you can read someone's face. We know you can read testosterone signs: the heavy jaw, heavy brow ridge, and little round face for estrogen. What we will do eventually is figure out how serotonin and dopamine express themselves physically. I'm interested in the smell thing, but they call it love at first sight because 80 percent of the brain is devoted to the visual.

IK: What do you think about a generation of single people who are on SSRIs? Are they spiking their dopamine and messing with their brain chemistry?

HF: Yes. At the university I'm working with, 40 percent of incoming freshmen are on something. Ritalin for fun, androgens to build the body, SSRIs.

And you say that antidepressants not only have sexual side effects but that they dull the brain's ability to feel love?

HF: Yes, I wrote about it [with psychiatrist J. Anderson Thomson] in a chapter in the book "Evolutionary Cognitive Neuroscience."

IK: I think you're on to something, because anecdotally I meet a lot of single people on antidepressants and I would say their mating systems are very impaired. That's 40 percent of my clientele -- when one person is on an antidepressant. And I hear from lots of people whose psychiatrists or G.P.s never even mentioned the sexual side effects before prescribing.

HF: I give speeches to grand rounds at hospitals, and at an uptown hospital a guy took me to the cleaners for [talking about the way that SSRIs alter the way the brain responds to love]. People don't hear what I'm saying. For some people these are necessary drugs. There are people who can't get out of bed to go on a date; they need antidepressants! I'm just saying that we could at least tell people it's a possibility that they're altering how they feel love.

Can you talk at all about anthropological and biological models for matchmaking? Are there yentas in the animal kingdom, matchmakers in nature?

HF: I've looked at 100 species and I think we've evolved three different brain systems -- sex drive, romantic love, and attachment, the deep sense of calm and security you can feel over the long term. Animals have all three systems. Now, 97 percent of animals do not pair up to rear their young; only 3 percent do. So they probably have a stronger attraction system and maybe romantic love, but not as strong attachment systems.

But an elephant will, at the beginning of her estrus, avoid a lot of males and then she'll suddenly see one who's the right guy and make a beeline for him. Then she'll show many of the characteristics that, if you listed them in a human being, you would say she's in love: doggedly following him; focused attention on the fact that this particular male is special -- if he had three heads she wouldn't notice -- all kinds of affiliative gestures, like putting her trunk on his back; not eating; not sleeping; she'll be just overcome by infatuation for this fella. So no, I don't think other female elephants are lumbering through as matchmakers, saying, "He's not good for you!" But don't forget that many females raise their babies on their own. So what they really need is insemination by the best-looking, strongest, smartest, least scruffy guy.

Given the number of single mothers, could humans be heading toward a model in which women raise their babies on their own and just need insemination from the smartest, least scruffy male?

HF: I don't think so. Our brain system for attachment is so strong.

IK: On the other hand, I send my son to a school where a percentage of moms chose to be artificially inseminated or have a sperm donor. They are very successful in their careers, money is not really an issue, and they're raising their children on their own.

HF: But I would guess that if the right guy came along ... Look: One-third of all children in America are born out of wedlock; teen births are going down, but older women are choosing to have the babies on their own and then marrying the guy or marrying a different guy. But 90 percent of Americans do marry by middle age. We're just marrying later and doing more serial pair bonding.

I know that eHarmony's goal is to lower the divorce rate, and PerfectMatch's is to make practical long-term partnerships. Are you interested in creating marriages?

HF: was designed for people interested in a long-term relationship. But we feel that a lot of these other sites are behind the times in looking only for marriage, that there are many, many ways to have a beautiful long-term relationship that does not include marriage.

Was it a major decision to provide matching services for gay couples?

HF: No. They asked me right off the bat whether I thought that the brain chemistry for gay was any different from the brain chemistry for straight, and I'm absolutely convinced that it isn't.

It's the same model for matching?

HF: Absolutely. We don't have quite as many gays to study as straights, but that's changing thanks to the new ad campaign, and I've been asked whether they'll have the same patterns as the straights, and everything makes me think yes. Explorers are going to go for Explorers whether they're gay, straight, black, white, pink, green, old, young, cats, dogs, male or female. If you're a person who loves risk and novelty, you're going to want somebody to do that with you. Period. Homosexuality is about which sex you're attracted to. It's nothing about how you feel when you're in love.

IK: I can tell you that gay couples are having the same issues as straight couples: boredom in relationships, emotional infidelity, sexual infidelity. If the post-matching process is exactly the same, I would think the pre-matching systems are probably the same.

What else is shifting in the world of dating and couples?

IK: So many gender stereotypes are being turned on their heads right now, between stay-at-home dads and the guy who makes less money than his wife. It's tremendously exciting, though I sometimes worry that the residue of the third-wave feminist cultural product creates almost a new set of expectations.

Like that all women want casual sex?

IK: Yeah, or that women should always be asking guys out, stuff like that.

HF: A good example of that is who pays. From an anthropological perspective, the guy always pays.


HF: Because throughout the animal kingdom, it's food for sex. A male chimpanzee will get the sugar cane and the female will go up and stare at him. You know, if somebody's staring at your food, you've got to deal with this. So the male gives her the sugar cane and she'll turn around and copulate with him and then march off with the food. Women biologically know there's no such thing as a free lunch.

I'm not in Ian's business, but I'm single. I find that I want to split the bill until I'm ready to make a relationship. At the very moment he pays, we've already begun down a new route in my head.

IK: I meet a lot of men who are confused. Who are somewhat wired to be a pursuer in something and confused about paying the check, or calling someone again, or courtship around sex. Everything is upended.

HF: That's what's so interesting! Because we're seeing the shedding of thousands of years of traditions where men knew what they were doing and women knew what they were doing and now we're here in this amazing time in human evolution.

IK: When I met my wife we had a great first date and we were very attracted to each other. And she still gives me shit about this because I kissed her on the cheek, and she still says, "I can't believe you didn't kiss me on the lips." And I say, "But I knew that I liked you!" Guys get it internally even if they never stop to think about it: If I postpone sex, it will lengthen the courtship period and increase the dopamine activity and enhance the whole reward system. So in an age of casual sex you have a bunch of guys who are slowing the process down.

HF: We have these innate sexual practices that we don't even realize. That's the difference between short-term and long-term reproductive strategies.

When we meet someone do we decide short-term or long-term pretty quickly?

HF: Different people would do different things, but what they call "beer goggles" is a short-term reproductive strategy. But then you might take her to bed and wake up and she says something about Nietzsche or Tolstoy that makes you think you could have a good intellectual conversation with her and then you take her to breakfast and over breakfast she laughs at your jokes and you start falling in love with her. So short-term can turn into long-term.

What is the thing about your fingers? It's a question on the Chemistry questionnaire -- about how long your pointer finger is versus your ring finger.

HF: It's called digit ratio. In the womb, the brain is washed over by estrogen and testosterone. If you have a lot more testosterone than estrogen in the womb, it is going to build a longer fourth finger than second finger. If you've got a lot more estrogen in the womb, the pointer finger will be longer.

What does it say about your personality?

HF: Well, there are three testosterone bursts. There's one in the womb, and there's one in infancy and a giant spurt in puberty. But if you have more testosterone in the womb and you have a longer fourth finger, you're more likely to have musical ability, mathematical abilities, to be an engineer or architect or good at computer programming. You tend to have poorer social skills but be direct, decisive, ambitious, competitive. What they call extreme male brain is when you're overly flooded with testosterone and are pushed into the autistic spectrum. And football players are very high on testosterone and estrogen. So you can be high in both.

What does it mean to have more estrogen?

HF: Usually that you have good verbal skills, can find the right word rapidly, are good at remembering, better at compassion, nurturing, patience, have good people skills, and are better at reading posture, gesture, tone of voice and facial features.

Do you believe lifelong monogamy is possible and natural?

The word "monogamy" means a pair bond, which doesn't necessarily mean sexual fidelity. What you're asking about is a long-term pair bond including sexual fidelity. So ... sure! Forty-three percent of people are serial monogamists, but that leaves the balance of people who form a pair bond and sustain it long term.

Builders go for Builders, Negotiators for Directors and Directors for Negotiators, and Explorers are going to keep going for a lot of different kinds of people! I get asked all the time can people settle down. And I think a good Explorer can find another good Explorer who keeps them running home for the novelty.

IK: I think that the beginning of a relationship, especially falling in love, is such a heightened state that people often don't know each other for a few years. Romantic love will mask more fundamental truths about our personalities, and I meet a lot of people who don't understand that they're really sexually incompatible until they're well into the relationship.

HF: Yes! In fact I say to people, "Don't marry him till that's worn off and you know what you've got."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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