Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Send GrrlScientist to Antarctica

I know that I have a readership of probably about two, but if you can, check out GrrlScientist's blog
and vote for her to be the official blogger on a Quark Expeditions trip to Antarctica! You can read about her entry and vote here.

Personality, hormones, and attraction

Thanks to my insomnia, I've discovered an awesome website that has podcasts of interviews with authors whose books are related to psychology. I've just listened to interviews with two biological anthropologists, Meredith Small and Helen Fisher, and right now, Fisher's interview has me thinking. While I would have initially dismissed her book (entitled Why Him, Why Her? Finding Real Love by Personality Type) as a cheesy self-help sort of book, now I'm absolutely fascinated and want to read it. Basically, she studies the evolution of attraction and love, and her current research (in conjunction with match.com--which sounds far more lucrative than the prospects for most biological anthropologists) involves four different personality types that are supposed to be associated with hormones/neurotransmitters. "Explorers" are curious and adventurous and associated with dopamine, "Builders" are traditional and reliable and associated with serotonin, "Directors" are analytical, competitive, and associated with testosterone, and "Negotiators" are passionate and altruistic and associated with estrogen (just from the basic descriptions I knew I would fit into this category, and subsequently taking the questionnaire has confirmed that I am primarily a Negotiator and secondarily an Explorer). According to her interview, Explorers are most compatible with Explorers, Builders are most compatible with Builders, and Directors are most compatible with Negotiators and vice versa.

While this is an interesting concept, and I'm really interested to read her book and read more about her book, thus far I feel it sounds a bit to simplistic, and there's a few things about it that seem problematic. However, it's possible that these will be addressed in her book, so I should reserve final judgement until I've read it. Nonetheless, they seem like some pretty big concerns. First, these categories are based on temperment, and from the interview I get the impression they are based on people's "nature" (ie, what you're born with). She mentions genetics quite a few times in the interview, so I get the impression that genetics is thought to be the underlying basis--however, she does also talk about digit ratio and hormones in the womb, thus it sounds like environmental effects, at least prenatally, are thought to shape these temperments as well. Nonetheless, while the broad personality groups make sense, their linkage with hormones seems rather confusing and counter-intuitive to me. While I could understand that certain genes are associated with increased levels of secretion of particular hormones, and that both that and hormonal fetal environment play an important role in shaping temperment/personality/the individual, the focus on four hormones, particularly two dominant sex hormones, seems simplistic and problematic. While these four are some of the most well-studied hormones/neurotransmitters, they're just four of very, very many. What about norepinephrine, vasopressin, oxytocin, progesterone and cortisol? And nevermind that I'm just mentioning the neurotransmitters and hormones I'm most familiar with--we have tons more. Furthermore, are the effects set by birth, or can they fluctuate? If these inclinations are based on prenatal influences on the brain (which makes the most sense to me), than they should be set by birth, and relatively impermeable to environmental influences throughout life. However, if they are influenced by these hormones throughout life, than a) we would expect a lot of fluctuation, and b) medications such as antidepressants and birth control would alter individual's inclinations. I remember reading an article by her (it's on her website) about the risks of antidepressants jeopardizing attraction, love, and relationships, which suggests that this is a concern--however, I read it a while ago, so I don't quite remember what the specifics were.

While she says that both men and women can be negotiators and directors (as an example, Bill Clinton is characterized as an estrogen-associated Negotiator, while Hillary Clinton is characterized as a testosterone-asssociated Director) it also seems problematic that two of the major categories are tied so closely to major sex hormones.

The other question I have is how these categories, and this concept, relates to attraction. The impression I get is that these categories suggest long-term compatibility, but I wonder how well they relate to attraction. Are people attracted to the categories they "should" be attracted to, or are people often attracted to the "wrong" (ie, less compatible) type? My hunch is that they are. How do these categories fit/conflict with research on attraction that has examined the role of MHCs (ie, the t-shirt sniffing studies) and aspects like symmetry, eye-distance, and hand proportions (all of which have been implicated in influencing attraction). Do these biochemically-related personality types actually relate to the "chemistry" (or, as I think is more accurate, the magic) of attraction?

Finally, I also seem some commonalities between these personality types and other personality measures, such as the Myers-Brigg (ie, the one with categories such as INFJ), and the Big Five (which I remember by the acronym OCEAN from my Personality Psych class many years ago--stands for Openness, Conscientiousness Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism). The Myers-Brigg categories relate to 4 of the Big 5, with Neuroticism excluded, and I can see connections between Openness and Explorers, Conscientiousness and Builders, and Agreeableness and Negotiators. However, I also think Extraversion might relate better to Explorer-tendencies than Director-tendencies.

Nonetheless, I see some potential for an interesting read, and I hope she addresses my questions in the book. I'd also be interested to see if she how certain temperments have tendencies toward certain attraction/relationship patterns associated with the dominant hormones (ie, I would think Explorers would fall in love, or at least infatuation, quite easy, that Builders would be most adept at building steady, committed relationships, etc.)

Anyway, his fascinates me because it both taps into my nerdy interests in hormones and behavior, and is a topic that is interesting and applies to everyone's lives. This is what I love about bio anthro--it helps us understand ourselves, our lives, and the people around us (which is what I try to impart on my students)! You can check out more about Helen Fisher and these ideas at website or the podcast.

And in other news, here's a link to an interesting blog post about voles, oxytocin, and nurturing behavior .

Stay tuned for more updates eventually--I still plan on adding more about tools and cognition at some point, and also intend on writing a post about anthromorphism sometime soon...