Feb 15, 2024 - Podcasts

Helen Fisher: How we choose who we love

Anthropologist Helen Fisher has long been trying to answer the question: why do you fall in love with one person rather than another? Her research says we've evolved four basic styles of thinking and behaving linked with the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen systems. Fisher used that research to create a questionnaire that's been taken by 15 million people in 40 countries, shedding light on how we choose our mates.

She's also one of the experts behind the Singles in America survey from Match.com, the most recent of which shows that people are using AI in online dating, and are increasingly trying alternatives to monogamy.

  • Plus, Axios' Carly Mallenbaum on legal protections for polyamorous relationships.

Guests: Dr. Helen Fisher, anthropologist and chief science advisor to Match.com; Axios lifestyle reporter Carly Mallenbaum.

Credits: 1 big thing is produced by Niala Boodhoo, Alexandra Botti, and Jay Cowit. Music is composed by Alex Sugiura and Jay Cowit. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can send questions, comments and story ideas as a text or voice memo to Niala at 202-918-4893.

DR. HELEN FISHER: And he turned around to me at a corner and he said, Helen Fisher, I'm going to marry you, and this time, I'm not drunk. [[laughs]]

NIALA: Even as dating technology advances…

HELEN: …they want AI to help them sort through matches, help create a profile…

NIALA: ...one anthropologist who's studied love for decades says: science still shows us the basics of what we look for in a mate.

HELEN: I've been able to watch who's – naturally, chemically – drawn to whom.

NIALA: I'm Niala Boodhoo – from Axios, this is 1 big thing.

One December night in 2005, Dr. Helen Fisher got a call in her New York City apartment, with a question from the people at Match.com:

HELEN: Why do you fall in love with one person rather than another?

So I began to look into the brain and in fact I was able to establish that we've evolved four basic styles of thinking and behaving linked with the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, estrogen system.

NIALA: Fisher, who has studied human behavior, specifically love and attraction, for her entire career, used that research to create a questionnaire that's been taken by 15 million people in 40 countries.

HELEN: And as it turns out, If you're very high on the dopamine scale, you go for people like yourselves. Risk taking, novelty seeking, curious, creative people are drawn to people like themselves. Same thing with high serotonin. People who are very traditional, conventional, follow the rules, also want somebody like themselves. In those two cases, similarity attracts. In the other two cases testosterone and estrogen, opposites attract.

NIALA: Match used her findings – originally called the Fisher Temperament Inventory – as part of the matching system on their new site at the time, Chemistry.com. Since then, she has developed a second-generation version of the questionnaire which is used widely in business training settings, as well as love.

And for the last 13 years, Helen has been one of the experts behind the Singles in America survey funded by Match, which is a sample of more than 5,000 U.S. singles – across the board, not just online – this year between the ages of 18 and 77. It calls itself the most comprehensive annual scientific survey of single Americans.

Some themes that stood out to her this year? Using AI in dating, and trying alternatives to monogamy.

For this day after Valentine's Day, I asked Helen to put this all into context for us…and for her bottom line on finding and keeping romantic love today.


NIALA: Dr. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist who researches human behavior. She's the longtime chief science advisor to Match. com and author of a number of books, including Why We Love. Helen, welcome to One Big Thing.

HELEN: I'm delighted to be with you.

NIALA: Can you talk us through some of these personality types that get attached to these, different styles of thinking that you're talking about?

HELEN: Okay, so if you're very expressive of the traits in the dopamine system, you tend to be risk taking, novelty seeking, curious, creative, spontaneous, and energetic person. It's basically the dopamine system in the brain. I call these people explorers, and they go for people like themselves, other explorers. People are very expressive of the serotonin system. I call these people builders, traditional, conventional, follow the rules, respect authority, detail oriented, often religious.

They also go for people like themselves. Traditional goes for traditional. In terms of testosterone and estrogen, people are very expressive of testosterone. I call them directors. Analytical, logical, direct, decisive, tough minded, skeptical people, good at things like math, engineering, computers, music - and they're drawn to their opposite - I call them negotiators, high estrogen people who tend to be, Oh, they see the big picture. They're contextual, long term thinkers. They're imaginative, intuitive, very good people skills, very good verbal skills, empathetic. And they go for their opposite.

Testosterone goes for estrogen, estrogen goes for testosterone, opposites attract. In the other two cases, dopamine and serotonin, similarity attracts. And you know, Niala, a very good example is my husband and me (laughs). We're both very high dopamine, go travel over the world, all kinds of things. He's very high testosterone, I'm very high estrogen, but he is higher on serotonin than I am. He follows the rules. I'll follow them. I don't want to be roadkill, but if it doesn't make any sense to me, I don't do it.

So what's interesting to me is that, basically your childhood and your experiences make, does a lot, build a lot of who you are, but only about 50 percent of it. A good 40 to 60 percent of who you are comes out of your biology. So what I'm trying to do is add the second half of this puzzle.

NIALA: So when you look at that Singles in America survey, you've been working on these for a long time. the biggest shift you've seen over the last 13 years?

HELEN: Oh, I think the most beautiful thing is I call it slow love. You know, in my day, I'm a lot older than you, uh, you know, people married in, I mean, women married at age, what, 20, 21, men at age 22, 23.

Today we're marrying at age, you know, 28, 29, 30, 31 for men. So there's this long period of pre commitment. And all of my data has shown that the longer you court, and the later you marry, the more likely you are to remain together. And that's exactly what singles are doing today.

I'm extremely impressed with the young Gen Z and Millennials. They say, I want to get my finances in shape. I want to get my career in shape. I want to get myself in shape before I go into a relationship. They're just serious about love and, and it's impressive.

NIALA: Helen, we're hearing so much about non-monogamy right now and I wonder what the survey said about that among people who are dating.

HELEN: Yeah. We asked 5, 000 plus people, whether they had a consensual non monogamous relationship at any time in the past. A lot of them had this year.

In other words, they agreed – They weren't, lying about it. They had agreed to sleep with other people, have romances with other people. 31 percent said yes. What's interesting about it in this recent Singles in America study is that it is not impacting their long term views of wanting a monogamous partnership.

What 38 percent of singles said that, it has helped them know what they want in a long term, partnership. 29 percent felt that it had made them more emotionally mature. 76 percent said that all of their past sexual experiences had helped define them today, who they are, and what they want in the future.

So, singles still want to make that long term, uh, sexually monogamous relationship. They're just trying a whole lot of other things before they do that.

NIALA: I wonder how many people would say that they don't think it's a form of learning, that this is a lifestyle that they want to have.

HELEN: You know, 97 percent of mammals do not pair up to rear the young. People do. We tend to do it over and over and over, a series of partnerships. But it is, from my understanding of how the brain works, the vast majority of these polyamorous relationships, open relationships, swinging relationships, will not last long term.

NIALA: One thing that is new to the dating world this year is AI, and this survey showed that people are turning to artificial intelligence to help them with online dating.

HELEN: Isn't that a trip? we asked quite a few questions about, are you using AI, and what are you using it for, and what do you want to use it for? And what's really cool is 14%, so this is a study of people, not on match. It's a national representative sample, so it's real solid data. 14 percent of people who are online daters used it, and 6 percent of people of all daters used it. So it's just beginning. 43 percent have used AI, uh, to help them write a profile. 37 percent has, uh, used it to help them write the first message to somebody. 27 percent say that it's helped them get better matches, and 32 percent said it helped them meet people faster.

So the bottom line is it's helping people in that very early, stage of courtship. And that's great. You know, I mean, people are so scared of new technology. It's an, you know, even Socrates was scared that with the beginning of writing, we'd, we'd all lose our memory. That didn't happen.

AI is helping in courtship. In that very early stage of just finding somebody, then you go out. And your ancient human brain kicks into action and you court the way you always have. You smile the way you always did, you laugh the way you always did, you assess them the way you always did.

NIALA: You said that, when people meet in person their brain sort of assesses the way they always have. Do you think online dating has changed the way we assess people? No.

HELEN: You know, romantic love is a drive. It comes from the oldest parts of the brain. It lies right next to the brain factories that orchestrate thirst and hunger. Thirst and hunger keeps you alive today. Romantic love drives you to form a partnership and send your DNA into tomorrow. These things are not going to change.

NIALA: Maybe I just wonder, like, the sheer volume of choices.

HELEN: That's the problem.

NIALA: Does that make a difference? Because I will say, like, as someone who's done online dating, I found it just very different depending on the size of the city that I'm in because of the volume of choice people have.

HELEN: Really, that's the problem. There's two things that you got to do. Number one, don't binge. The brain is built to deal with about five to nine options. You probably already know the term. It's called the paradox of choice or cognitive overload. The brain can't cope with it.

And so don't binge. After you've met nine people who fit somewhere within the ballpark, get off the dating site and get to know this person better. The more you binge, the less likely you're ever going to meet anybody.

That's number one. Number two, when you are on these dating sites, think of reasons to say yes instead of no. The brain is built to say no. There's a huge brain region linked with what is called negativity bias.

And when you've just met somebody online, you know, you know so little about them that you overweight it. So you crack a joke and they don't laugh.

And you think, oh my god, no sense of humor. He's out. try to think of the positive.Give people a chance. And in fact, one thing that I'm quite impressed with is that these days people are giving people a chance.

One of the questions in the Singles in America study that I asked many years: Have you ever gone out with somebody who you initially really did not find attractive and eventually fell in love with? And as it turns out, 49 percent say yes.

NIALA: In a moment – more with Dr. Helen Fisher, including her OWN love story, and more on how to think about our brains in love…that's coming up.


NIALA: Welcome back to 1 big thing from Axios – I'm Niala Boodhoo. I've been talking to anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, who has spent a lifetime studying how and why we love.

NIALA: So, I think anyone listening might want to hear your love story.

HELEN: Oh, well, sure. Well, first of all, married him when I was 75. I had a long 15 year relationship with somebody, then an 18 year relationship when it was, then it was just fine, both.

So, he wrote for the New York Times for 21 years, so he's been interviewing me forever. So we've known each other, but he was younger, and I've never put the make on somebody in business.

And so for about a year, every about six weeks, he'd invite me to the opera, or we would go to some event and we were the only two people who were single and he'd take me back to the subway and give me a hug, and that was that. So anyway, after a year of this, he invited me if you know, New York, to go out to dinner and walk along the beautiful thing called the High Line and go play pool.

So I don't know what got into me. I pulled out the cocktail napkin underneath my drink, and I said to him, I said, why don't we write down on these cocktail napkins what we would really like? to win if we won at pool. So I wrote down on my cocktail napkin, a real kiss. I was sick of it.

And I didn't know what he had written down. So we go play pool. He creams me. So I open his cocktail napkin and it says, sex and clarity. I say, I got the sex part, but what do you have in mind with clarity? And he said he wanted to be friends with benefits. I mean, he had a teenage son still in high school. And he was a single father, no way it was going to do more than Friends with Benefits.

I said to him, I said, you know, I study love. I'm perfectly happy starting in as friends with benefits.

But when you start to have sex with somebody, you can trigger the dopamine system. And fall in love. Are you willing to take that chance? And he said yes. Anyway, the boy went off to college, and there was one night where Sitting in a restaurant he suddenly turned to me and he said, I'm going to marry you, Helen Fisher.

We're lying in bed that night and I whisper, I said, Sweetheart, you know, you said at dinner, I'm going to marry you, Helen Fisher. And he says to me, Oh, I must have been drunk.

NIALA: Oh no!

HELEN: Apparently he was joking. the following day, I figured, I'm not asking him again. I mean, if he, if he was just drunk, I mean, I'm not going to press this on him. I mean, I love the man. I won't leave him anything I got, but I don't need to marry him.

And we were walking along on 86th street, going off to get something. And he turned around to me at a corner and he said, Helen Fisher, I'm going to marry you, and this time. I'm not drunk. And so we got married in a field, in the middle of COVID, and I'm still madly in love with him, it's been nine years. He gave me dancing lessons, for Christmas. And after you and I talk, I'm going off to dance lesson number five with my true love.

NIALA: But you don't live together.

HELEN: Oh, we are L-A-T, living apart together. I said to him, I'll marry you, but I'm not moving in. I want to go out with my girlfriends. I like going to the ballet, it doesn't interest him.

And so a couple of nights a week, we do things with, with our friends. We're madly in love. You can do LAT if you, if you really trust each other.

NIALA: So, bottom line, I wonder what you want people to hold on to after hearing this episode. Because we've talked about a lot of things here.

What would be your one big thing about finding love? Or maintaining love, as we're just talking about.

HELEN: It does take some work. Get on the internet and get to work.

They are out there, whatever age you are. That's in terms of finding love. It's possible. it's just a brain system. It can be triggered instantly, but you better get out and do it. In terms of maintaining love, well, we've evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction.

Sex drive, feelings of intense romantic love, and feelings of deep attachment, in my opinion. You, it would be good to maintain all three of these brain systems. Have sex. Don't tell me you don't have time. You got time to get your hair cut. You got time to go out with your girlfriends. You got time on Saturday night.

You have time to make love. Plan it if you need to, but have sex. If you want to sustain romantic love. Novelty, novelty, novelty. Do new and novel things together. Drives up the dopamine system in the brain. Can sustain feelings of romantic love. In terms of attachment, this third brain system, you know, stay in touch, hug, kiss.

Learn to lie arm in arm when you're going to sleep. Sit next to each other on the couch when you're watching television. Stay in touch, drives up the oxytocin system. And also, we've put people in the scanner brain scanner who are in long term, very happy marriages. And these are the three brain systems that remain active in a long term happy marriage: Brain system linked with empathy, a brain system linked with controlling your own stress and your own emotions and a brain systems with this positive illusions, the ability to overlook what you don't like and focus on what you do. It's possible to remain in love long term. Get out there on the internet, take my questionnaire, it's a little bit self serving, figure out who you are, what you're looking for, and pick the right person.

NIALA: We will have a link to Dr. Fischer's questionnaire in our show notes. Helen Fischer is an anthropologist and chief science advisor to Match.com. Helen, thank you so much. And happy belated Valentine's Day.

HELEN: Happy belated Valentine's Day to you. Every day should be Valentine's Day.


NIALA: One more piece of this story before we go…This idea of consensual non-monogamy is not new, though as it's getting more attention, some people are looking for ways to protect non monogamous relationship structures like polyamory.

CARLY MALLENBAUM: Polyamory is typically described as a relationship structure where there are multiple partners and it's consensual.

NIALA: Axios' Carly Mallenbaum has the story.

CARLY: There's still a lot of stigma that can be associated with being with that kind of relationship. There aren't a lot of protections for people in the workplace or in housing who identify as poly,

I've talked to poly people who know people who didn't get a promotion at work because of this relationship structure that they were in. And so there's been a push to have some more laws protecting people in diverse relationships including polyamory. Massachusetts has led the way here. There are three cities in Massachusetts, Somerville, Cambridge and Arlington that allow for more than two people to be in a domestic partnership. And two of those cities, Somerville and Cambridge, also have laws protecting polyamorous and other non-nuclear family relationships from discrimination in, like I said, employment and other spaces.

What's new is in California, there are two bills that are being introduced this week in Oakland and in Berkeley. And I talked to Oakland council member Janani Ramachandran, who is the first LGBTQ woman of color to serve on her council. And she personally knows plenty of people who are polyamorous but don't feel comfortable or safe saying that out loud. So she plans to introduce, the non discrimination ordinance that protects diverse families, including polyamorous ones to the rules committee today. And she hopes this could lead to what she calls a waterfall effect that would encourage school districts and even changes to state law that would protect these kinds of what we call non nuclear families.

NIALA: That's Axios' Carly Mallenbaum.

And that's it for this week's edition of 1 Big Thing.

The 1 big thing team includes Supervising Producer Alexandra Botti and Sound Engineer Jay Cowit. Alex Suigura composed our theme music. Aja Whitaker-Moore is Axios' Executive Editor, and Sara Keuhalani Goo is Axios' Editor in Chief.

I'm Niala Boodhoo. Thanks for listening, stay safe, and we'll see you back here next Thursday.

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