Helen Fisher (“Why Him? Why Her?”) And Problems With Mormon Mate Choice

Helen Fisher’s latest book, “Why Him? Why Her?” is yet another excellent, informative canada cialis online read. I bought it for my late adolescent – twenty-something children, but have thoroughly enjoyed reading it myself.

This note’s purpose is to briefly describe one issue related to Mormon mate choice that jumped out at me as I read this book. That is, certain personality types tend to mate best with other particular personality types, and strong social influences such as Mormonism tend to cause individuals to falsely identify their own personality type, and therefore to make ill fitting mate choices. This has helped me to understand a number of things about Mormon coupling that have puzzled me.

Who Is Helen Fisher?

Before getting into that, let me indicate that I highly recommend Helen Fisher’s work in general (see http://psychjourney_blogs.typepad.com… andhttp://www.chemistry.com/relationship… for a smattering of her recent ideas). She is one of the world’s leading anthropologists of human mating behaviour. This book in particular, is a powerful tool not only for people who are trying to understand mating behaviour, but as an exercise in general self understanding. Fisher breaks down personality type in a way that is for me new and highly informative. I will come back to that briefly after describing the issue that brought me to the computer this morning.

As an aside, I understand that Fisher’s work in this area was inspired by consulting she was asked to do for the match.com people, which led to the creation of the chemistry.com dating service. She designed the personality profile test for that website on the basis of the research summarized in this book.

Fisher’s Personality Types

I need to provide a little background with regard to Fisher’s theory before returning to the human engineering issue I described above.

Fisher’s research indicates that the personality types identified by the Myers-Briggs and other commonly used personality profile tests are probably a function of our dominant neurotransmitters. For example, the Explorer type is dominated by dopamine, the pleasure hormone. Explorers tend to be highly open new experience, adventuresome and creative. They need lots of stimulation to avoid boredom, toward which they have a powerful aversion. They are the personality types most likely to leave their inherited religious group or cultural tradition. They also tend to mate with each other, because other types of mates do not provide enough excitement. They tend to be more sexually adventuresome, and have more mates than the other personality types. They look for a playmate — someone to adventure with through life.

Builders, on the other hand, are dominated by serotonin, our hormonal anchor. They are tradition upholding, rule keeping, community and family oriented. They have the lowest sex drive of all the personality types, have fewer mates and the highest prospects of long-term, stable monogamous relationships. They are the pillars of most social groups, and of all the personality types, are the most likely to be actively participating members of organized religious groups. They seek stable, predictable companionship. As a result, they tend to mate with each other.

Directors are characterized by a high testosterone levels. They tend to be hard-driving, intellectual, focused individuals who are sometimes so good with detail that they have a hard time seeing the big picture. Intellectual stimulation and achievement are important to them. They look for a mind mate, and often find their best match in the Negotiator personality type.

This brings us to the Negotiators. Their dominant neurotransmitter is estrogen, with a significant dose of oxytocin as well. These hormones perform important bonding and comforting functions. Negotiators tend to be big picture thinkers, peacemakers, highly flexible and intuitive and therefore capable of navigating more social and interpersonal complexity than usual. They tend toward high degrees of introspection and emotional intimacy. They are stimulated by Directors intellectual firepower and purpose, and have the skills required to calm or ride out the storms Directors tend to tow around with them. Negotiators look for soulmates, and often find them in other Negotiators, and Directors.

Fisher does not mention John Gottman’s research (see http://www.gottman.com/marriage/self_…), but what’s she suggests is consistent with it. For example, Gottman points out the importance of at least a five positive to one negative communications ratio in order to make a long-term intimate relationship prosper. Amazingly, on the basis of primarily this measurement and half an hour of video, Gottman has a 95% batting average when it comes to predicting which couples will remain married, and which will divorce.

When Fisher’s personality type analysis and her observations with regard to how they work for mating purposes are considered in this regard, they make additional sense. Explorers will find much in each other to admire, as will Builders. However, put a Builder and an Explorer together, and you should expect a strong tendency to criticism that will make the five positive to one negative communications ratio difficult to maintain. On the other hand, there is much about your typical Negotiator that Directors tend to admire, and vice versa. And, just about all the personality types will find the easy-going, flexible, graceful Negotiators to be pleasant companions. These matches maximize the probability of the strong tendency toward positive communication that Gottman has conclusively demonstrated is almost always required for successful intimate relationship.

Fisher points out that none of us are a single personality type. Rather, her personality profile test is designed to indicate the degree to which a person is influenced by each of the personality types, and their neurotransmitters, described above. Some people are equally balanced along the entire continuum. Most, however, have a dominant and a strong secondary personality type. Fisher nicely describes the way in which these various first and second combinations relate to each other. She then reviews a wide variety of additional factors that influence mating choice. She makes it clear, of course, that all she can point out are tendencies or general rules. Life is full of exceptions, and human creativity often finds ways to turn weaknesses into strengths. However, if given the opportunity it makes sense to take high probability instead of low probability opportunities. Her research is helpful in this regard.

All in all, this is a great book.

Socially Engineered Mating Mismatches

I will now return to the issue described above, which I should note is not a Mormon issue, but rather an issue related to strong social influences.

Other researchers have noted the way in which strong social groups can influence personality type. See, for example, http://www.somis.org/TDD-02.html, which describes a study conducted with regard to the Church of Christ and its discipling movement in that regard. As people became more embedded in that social group, their scores on the Myers-Briggs test moved toward characteristics that were important to the group.

In any event, I doubt that we need empirical support for the proposition that within social groups such as Mormonism that emphasize conservatism, the sanctity of authority, and rule keeping that the Builder personality type would be encouraged. Each of us has at least a small Builder component. We should accordingly expect that within a social group such as Mormonism, any tendencies that we have in this regard will be amplified. In some cases, those tendencies could be called out of thin air by way of our mimetic nature. That is, we tend to imitate the behaviour we see around us, and for that reason sometimes squeeze ourselves into boxes that pinch.

Fisher indicated that one way to identify a misfit between environment and personality type is how tiring certain activities or environments feel to us. For example, a Builder will often be more than capable of keeping up with an Explorer, but will feel exhausted by the effort, whereas if the Builder were permitted to gravitate toward his preferred activities, he would spend much more time feeling content or energized instead of exhausted. Exactly the same would be true of the Explorer who forced herself to live in a Builder world.

This explains an important part of my experience upon leaving Mormonism. I had the sense of a massive burden being lifted. The Builder environment was stifling me to the point of nearly killing an important aspect of my self. Out from under its influence, I was able to explore a much broader segment of the world and was amazed at how good some parts of it felt. I was able, for the first time as an adult, to get to know my own personality type. The research with regard to the Church of Christ referenced above, and other similar research, indicates that we should expect it to take a significant period of time for our natural personality type to emerge after we distance ourselves from the strong social influence that has moulded our character. In fact, some of its influence will be permanent as a result of the way in which we have neurologically grown around it. The older we are when our social environment changes, the more true this last statement will be. This is not surprising, and is consistent with how I perceive my own experience.

In highly traditional societies, such as the Hindu, the primary purpose of marriage is the formation of stable families, which form the basis of stable communities. Doing what is required to make a marriage function is a social and moral duty, not part of a self-fulfillment process. As a result, personal happiness is not an important part of the marital relationship. Conservative communities such as Mormonism tend toward that end of the scale.

However, try as they might to be “in but not of the world”, Mormons are strongly influenced by Western social trends, including particularly the trend toward seeking individual fulfillment. Even their theology is schizophrenic in this regard. For example, one of Mormonism’s central tenets is “men are that they might have joy”. It is therefore not surprising that Mormons have high expectations with regard to personal fulfillment in general, and with regard to this aspect of marriage and family life. The fact that they choose their “eternal companions” in the manner described above sets them up for disappointment. And divorce is strongly discouraged within the Mormon community.

On the basis of what I just indicated, I hypothesize that within Mormonism, we should find many more mismatched, uncomfortable pairings that stick together than would generally be the case in Western society. When you combine that fact with Mormons generally high expectations with regard to personal fulfillment you have a recipe for depression – wonderful, well-intentioned, committed people who are married, and consistently either chew each other up or deaden each other, decade after decade. Not a pretty picture.

This reminds me that Utah was recently anointed the happiest state in the United States (see http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090311/a…). This was the result of what a scientist friend of mine told me was a superficial survey in which people were basically asked to indicate how happy they believed they were. Accordingly, all this study indicates is that people in Utah are more likely than most to say that they are really happy. Remember, “Men are that they might have joy”, and if you don’t have joy, something must be the matter with you. However, on the basis of another much more comprehensive survey conducted by the Mental Health Association (see state by state data, table A3, page 37 at http://www.nmha.org/files/Ranking_Ame…), it appears that living in Utah has a much higher than average (and perhaps US leading) correlation with depression. It is also well known that Utah leads (or nearly) the United States in a number of other unflattering categories, such as antidepressant consumption, white-collar fraud (that is, Utahns are taken advantage of far more than most other Americans – the inference is that they are rendered naïve, and manipulable by their religious beliefs so as to be more obedient to their religious leaders, and then this is taken advantage of by other wolves), tax evasion, multilevel marketing participation (more being taken advantage of), and various forms of domestic and sexual violence. The picture that comes into focus is that of a social group many members of which are having trouble coping. The root causes are probably a tendency toward magical thinking that causes wide variety of poor decisions, and in particular form a choice.

So there you have it. Yet another problem with which Mormonism saddles its well intended, hard-working, community-oriented, and generally speaking fine people. I don’t have a solution that seems workable enough to be worth discussing. Nonetheless, understanding is better than not understanding. This is at least a step in the right direction.

More Understanding Causes More Compassion and Better Choices

Let me try to conclude on an upbeat note. One of the most encouraging aspects of research such as that provided by Helen Fisher is the compassion with which it encourages us to look at ourselves as well as others. Builders, for example, are for the most part wonderful people. They are crucial to the long-term prospects of our species. They also have certain predictable traits that are often negative, one of which is an affinity for organized religion and other highly structured social environments, and the regrettably dogmatic attitudes that characterize many of these groups. Lamenting this while trying to force changes is the equivalent of banging one’s head against the wall. In any event, we could conduct the same sort of analysis with regard to each of the personality types Fisher describes. Each of the dominant personality traits comes with upside and downside.

The upshot of this research is that much of who we are is not determined by our choice, but rather our biology, and that the prospect for material change in that regard will in many cases be remote. Once we accept this point of view, we tend to be humbler with regard to our strengths, and less inclined to beat ourselves up with regard to our weaknesses. And, we tend (to a lesser extent) to extend the same charitable hand toward others.

Perhaps most importantly, we also come to understand the importance of a few of the choices we are able to make. One of those is who will be our long-term intimate companions, and the type of environment in which we will stand most of our time, whether at work, with family or socializing.

A large part of the trick to living the good life is learning how to spend as much time as possible in environments that allow us to use our strengths, while finding ways to protect ourselves and others against our weaknesses.

Choices with regard to where, with whom and how we live make the most significant difference with regard to the resonance, or dissonance, that will characterize our life experience. In the end, this will largely determine who we are and what we pass on to those we love the most.


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