DIVERSITY OF MIND

I’m a biological anthropologist and a neuroscientist who’s spent many years studying human personality.  There are two basic parts of personality: 1) your culture–everything you grew up to believe, do, say and think; and 2) your biology, your temperament–all those traits that you inherited. I study the second of these basic forces: your temperament, which comprises some 40-60% of who you are.   And in my years of studying the brain physiology of temperament, I have been able to establish that humanity has evolved four broad basic styles of thinking and behaving, linked with the neural systems for dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen.

The Harvard Business Review reports that 86% of problems in the office occur because people don’t understand each other.  So I came to believe that my information on these four basic biologically based styles of thinking and behaving could be useful in business anywhere in the world–to understand colleagues and clients, compose more effective teams, lead more effectively, and spark innovation.  

So I created a questionnaire to see to what degree you express the traits associated with each of these four basic brain systems; a questionnaire that has now been taking by over 14 million people in 40 countries.  It’s very different personality measure than any on the market today–because I developed it directly from current data on the architecture and physiology of the brain, and then I did two brain scanning studies (using fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imaging) to prove that the questionnaire actually measures what it says it’s measuring.

Each of these four brain systems is associated with a constellation of specific traits:  The traits  linked with the dopamine system include risk taking, novelty seeking, curiosity, spontaneity, energy, mentally flexibility and creativity, as well as being restless, unreflective, opportunistic and unpredictable.  I call those men and women who express a lot to these dopamine-related traits: Explorers.   And I suspect that most of our successful entrepreneurs around the globe inherited and express many of these biologically-based traits. 

The traits linked with the serotonin system are quite different.  Associated with this brain systems are being: traditional, conventional, cautious, calm, detail oriented, literal and concrete thinking (as opposed to theoretical thinking). These men and women tend to follow the rules, respect authority, like schedules and plans, and are risk-adverse. It’s more important to them to have loyal friends than interesting friends.  And they can be close-minded, rigid and controlling. I have designated those with a high proportion of these biologically based traits: Builders. And I suspect that Queen Elizabeth is the high serotonin type, as is Mike Pence, our American vice president.

The traits linked with the testosterone system once again, different.  These men (and also women) tend to be analytical, logical, strategic, direct, decisive, tough minded, skeptical, straight-forward and very good at what scientists call rule-based systems–everything from math and engineering to computers, mechanics and music.  They can also be impatient, aloof, rank-oriented and so direct that they are offensive. I call these men and women: Directors.  Beethoven was probably very expressive of the traits in the testosterone system, as was Margaret Thatcher and probably Hillary Clinton.  Trump is over the top; but a lot of presidents are most likely also highly expressive the many traits in the testosterone system.

The traits linked with the estrogen system are also numerous:  These women (and also men) are broad, contextual, long-term, holistic, synthetic “web” thinkers.  If high testosterone Directors have a narrow, focused, short-term perspective, those highly expressive of estrogen activity tend to think broadly and long term. They also excel at reading posture, gestures, and tone of voice; they have good people skills and they tend to be empathetic, nurturing, trusting and emotionally expressive. On the downside, they can be effusive, indecisive and gullible.  I call these people: Negotiators.   Obama and Bill Clinton both appear to express several of these high-estrogen traits.

Everyone is a vast combination of the traits in all four of these basic brain systems, of course. Indeed, I have never met two individuals whom I thought were alike—and I’m an identical twin.  But we do express some of the traits in some of these brain systems more than others—giving each of us a distinct and unique personality.  And herein lies the difference between my personality questionnaire and all others. The Myers-Briggs test, the Big Five and all other personality measures put you into one bucket or another. You are this or that.  But that’s not the way the brain works.  For example, I’m very expressive of some of the traits in the dopamine system, and also most of the characteristics linked with estrogen.  I‘ve got a few traits generated by testosterone: for example, I regard myself as logical.  But I’m not mathematically skilled or tough minded.  And I have very few traits linked with serotonin.  I’m not traditional, and I don’t tend to respect authority unless it makes sense to me. 

I have long hypothesized that these four broad styles of thinking and behaving evolved together—enabling our hunter/gatherer forebears to solve their myriad ecological, political and social problems as a team with a variety of essential skills.  High dopamine Explorers had a more creative intelligence, while serotonin-expressive Builders added their keen logistical savvy.  High- testosterone Directors contributed exquisite technical and strategic intelligence; and the high-estrogen Negotiators provided diplomatic intelligence.  Indeed, I think this composition of workers still provides tremendous advantages to any business.  The Explorer will conceive of a better mousetrap; the Director will build the mousetrap; the Builder will set the schedule and the process to produce the mousetrap; and the Negotiator will manage the team, advertise and sell the mousetrap.  We were built to put our heads together—but we humans are not alike.

But to prove that my questionnaire actually measured these four brain systems, I embarked on two brain scanning experiments (using fMRI).  This way I was able to “validate” my new personality measure:  The brain-scanning participants who scored high on the dopamine traits in my questionnaire also showed statistically-significantly more activity in a major dopamine pathway in the brain. Those who scored high on the serotonin traits in my questionnaire showed more activity in a tiny brain factory linked with “social norm-conformity,” a central characteristic of the serotonin system.  Those who scored high on my scale measuring testosterone traits showed more activity in a brain region built by fetal testosterone and associated with mathematical and spatial skills, traits linked with testosterone.  Last, those who scored high on my estrogen scale showed significantly more activity in brain regions built by fetal estrogen and linked with empathy and verbal skills.  Both fMRI studies validated my questionnaire—to my great joy: it measures what it says it measures. 

I originally developed this questionnaire for Match.com, a dating site for singles.  They wanted to know why people are romantically drawn to one person rather than another, and I figured that basic brain chemistry might be involved.  But my questionnaire became instantly popular in America.   So the president of Match soon asked me whether my questionnaire would work in other countries.  I replied: “If it doesn’t, I have failed–because I am not studying the American mind; I’m studying the human mind.”  So my questionnaire was put on dating sites in 39 other countries—giving me the opportunity to refine it.    

Then after the publication of my book on these four personality styles (WHY HIM? WHY HER?), I began to discuss my findings with the press—and with luck a young business entrepreneur, Dave Labno, heard me discussing these styles of thinking and behaving on the radio.  He called and encouraged me to apply my data to the world of business. 

With time, we developed a second-generation personality questionnaire and co-founded our company, NeuroColor.  Now we consult to major international companies, using this more-thorough, second-generation personality measure.  After taking this test, for example, participants now receive a 22-page profile on how they work, manage stress, deal with schedules, talk to those of other personal styles and more.  In short: we train people to reach into the minds of colleagues and clients and talk with them in ways these others can hear them, as well as show them how to apply these data to their other company needs—including building better teams, leading more effectively, spurring innovation and understanding and selling more successfully. 

In fact, I no longer believe in the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto yourself.  Instead, I believe in the Platinum Rule: do to others as they would have done to themselves—and you will win.  Today many companies want to hire diversity–women, blacks, Asians, and Latinos. That’s great; I entirely in favor of cultural diversity.  But what about diversity of mind?  I profoundly believe that when you understand the brain, you can reach anyone.

Helen Fisher
About Helen Fisher 2 Articles
Dr. Helen Fisher is a pioneer in examining the neurochemistry of personality. She is an internationally renowned expert in biological anthropology, brain chemistry, neuroscience, and personality styles. A professor at Rutgers University and Senior Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute, she’s also the most referenced scholar in the field of love and relationships in the world today. Her most recent book, Why Him? Why Her? Finding Real Love by Understanding Your Personality Type (Jan. 2009, Henry Holt), examines Dr. Fisher’s biological theories of personality. It stems from her work as Chief Scientific Advisor for Match.com, through which Dr. Fisher’s original inventory has been taken by over 16 million people in 40 countries. Her findings have been validated using brain scanning (fMRI) as well as more traditional methods in published academic articles.

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