Helen Fisher offers insights into what drives personality in Elon lecture

Fisher, a biological anthropologist and chief science advisor of Match.com, delivered at a talk in Whitley Auditorium on Oct. 24 as part of the Elon Liberal Arts Forum lecture series. 

By Leila Jackson ’22

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and chief science advisor of Match.com, spoke about her research on personality during an Oct. 24 lecture in Whitley Auditorium that is part of the Liberal Arts Forum lecture series. Fisher touched on personality types based on brain circuitry and how people with different personalities contribute to innovation.

Fisher’s interest in studying personality first developed when she was approached in 2005 by Match.com, which was interested in her previous research on love. The CEO of Match.com asked her why we are drawn to certain people, a question for which she had no concrete answer. “That got me interested in the biology of personality and I then began to see some patterns to personality that are not only useful in love but also in business,” Fisher told the audience Wednesday night.

Fisher found four brain systems linked with personality traits: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen. From there, she developed the Fisher Temperament Inventory, a questionnaire that tests the degree to which people express the levels of the four brain systems. She created categories for these different styles of thinking: explorer, builder, director and negotiator.

Since it was developed, the Fisher Temperament Inventory has been taken by 14 million people in 40 different countries. Fisher said that personality surveys tend to group people into a rigid category, but the Fisher Temperament Inventory is able to reflect the fact that people are a combination of multiple personality traits.

Diving into the various categories, Fisher offered insight into those people who are dopamine-oriented, which she categorizes as explorers. Explorers are energetic, optimistic and propose the most ideas. She presented examples of dopamine-oriented thinkers such as Barack Obama, Gloria Steinem and co-founder of PayPal, Peter Thiel. “They are very different people, very different backgrounds, very different contributions to humanity but they have the same basic temperament biologically driven by dopamine,” Fisher said. The advantages of explorers in a work environment are that they are fast thinkers, have an eye for opportunity, and they work well in times of crisis.

Next, she spoke about builders, those who primarily indicate traits linked with serotonin. Builders are calm, cautious and work well under pressure. They are detail-oriented and can bring ideas to life, she said. “If the high dopamine explorer has an idea for a better mousetrap, the higher serotonin guy is going to create the process of how you make this mousetrap,” Fisher said. Different countries such as Japan and China tend to have more people who are higher on the serotonin scale, she said.

Directors — those who are testosterone-oriented — are analytical and logical, she said. They are usually skilled with music and math as they understand rule-based systems. They are competitive, rank-oriented and decisive. Fisher said directors will innovate with new devices and strategies, with Apple founder Steve Jobs and diplomat and politician Hillary Clinton falling into this category.

The last thinking style is the negotiator, who is someone who falls higher on the estrogen scale. Fisher said that negotiators will weigh every option in difficult situations and are equipped with diplomatic intelligence. They are skilled with building teams and conflict and tend to have careers in writing and public relations. Charles Darwin, Oprah Winfrey and Bill Clinton are examples of people who fit into the negotiator type.

Fisher also talked about the importance of different types of diversity in the workplace. She mentioned that ethnic and gender diversity in the workplace is valuable, but it can go awry when people only hire employees who think the same way as them. She highlighted the benefits of working with others with different thinking styles. “If you’re going to build a team, you’ve got to begin to hire people who do not think the way you do,” Fisher said.

Fisher emphasized that she does not believe in the golden rule, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, but that she abides by what she called the platinum rule, which is to treat others as they would want to be treated. She mentioned that most problems in the workplace come from people not understanding each other, but that when you understand the brain, you can get along with people easier. “Get into their head, understand who they are, and you can reach anyone and get them to innovate,” Fisher said.