The science of love: what I learned last night

There’s this event in the city that’s like a science cafe, where a typically high-profile scientist of some kind–neuroscientist, primatologist, anthropologist, etc–comes to speak about their work in an engaging way to an audience of science nerds packed into the back room of a bar on a tuesday night. There have been some pretty awesome speakers in the past. It’s great.


Last night I went to a talk by Helen Fisher, “Loveologist”. We got there late so we had to stand in the back, along with about half the audience. Her talk was promising to deliver something a bit different: she’s a biological anthropologist who researches love. Now, of course there’s something hokey about approaching “love” from a biological point of view, and of course there’s something entertaining about it as well.

When her talk first started, she described love and its symptoms: how it clouds our judgment, how it’s made of 3 components (sexual attraction, romantic attraction, and attachment, each of which involves a different brain system and different neurotransmitters) etc. It was interesting and entertaining, though my skepticism started kicking in.

Then it got really hokey and frankly, offensive. Oh yeah, I should mention she works for She began saying that people typically fall in love with someone of their own ethnic, religious, socioeconomic, and educational background; someone who has the same values and level of attractiveness; etc. Sure, generally maybe these things might be trends, but what gave me the creeps was that her talk was about the biological basis of love and she was using this to imply that people are BIOLOGICALLY PREDESTINED to find partners exactly like themselves. As if cultural and societal biases are not involved here.

She went on, of course, to stereotype a lot of men and women.

There were 4 personality types, she argued. Just like Myers-Briggs! And a whole bunch of other philosophers! Who all intuited that there were 4 personality types! What was her addition to this hokey placing-everyone-in-categories mumbo jumbo? SCIENCE. That’s right, she BUTCHERED science. Here were her 4 personality types:

  • Predominantly DOPAMINE driven – thrill seekers basically. The “explorers”. They typically fall in love with other high-dopamine people. (Apparently Barack Obama is this.)
  • Predominantly SEROTONINE driven – people who like conformity, order, rules, religion (huh? can’t you get into religion for lots of reasons?). These are the “builders”. They typically fall in love with other high-serotonin people. (Apparently Mitt Romney.)
  • Predominantly TESTOSTERONE driven – cue stereotypes. Testosterone drives things like GOOD AT MATH and LACK OF EMPATHY. These are the “directors”. Shockingly, they like high estrogen people. (Apparently Hillary Clinton is this.)
  • Predominantly ESTROGEN driven – cue shaking my head and snarky comments traded with my ex and their friend, where basically everything was just making us angry. Empathy, big picture, reads into a lot of things (here she said in a high pitched voice: “The way he cut that lime means he’s not getting sex tonight!”). These are “negotiators”. Shockingly, they like testosterone-driven people. (Apparently Bill Clinton is this. Joked the speaker: “he was perhaps our first female president!” Barf.)

Ugh. In addition to a lot of cheap jokes about gender roles, contradicting science and reason and even herself at every turn, confirming biases people have in what was supposed to be a humorous presentation, erasing the complexity of human interaction, there were so many beefs we had with the science and with how it was applied. Our personal beefs:

  • Serotonin and dopamine are NEUROTRANSMITTERS. Testosterone and estrogen are SEX HORMONES. Sure, all of them have an effect on the brain, but like, what?! This makes no sense on a basic level, to lump in all 4 of these “chemicals” together.
  • She says these things are primal drives because dopamine and serotonin and oxytocin and all these neurotransmitter systems are close to the brainstem, the most primitive part of the brain. Okay first of all, the whole brain talks to itself, experience is subjective and is not so much a drive as it is a matter of circumstances. If personality doesn’t factor in, if the frontal cortex doesn’t get involved, then why is it so hard to fall in love? It’s a lot more complicated than just saying that only the primitive parts of the brain are involved.
  • Also, those primitive parts of the brain are just the more-studied parts of the brain: since mice have them, they’re easier to study.
  • These pathways are activated during different tasks. To say that one neurotransmitter (of like, thousands) drives one’s personality is… wow.
  • ALSO to say that EXPERIENCE and CULTURE don’t factor in is pretty amazingly stupid. She showed a map of the U.S. and how there are more serotonin people in the south and more estrogen people in New England. So basically because more people in the south are religious they’re biologically predisposed to religion? And everyone else has left? Okay we actually had a lot of thoughts about this. Of the 6 of us who went to the talk, 3 of us were foreign. They didn’t leave their countries because personality types: they left because economic and educational opportunity. Someone asked about the geographic distribution and she said that, and I paraphrase from memory, “people who don’t fit in in their home countries and leave to move elsewhere, they’re not stupid: they know they can fit in better somewhere else. It’s stupid to stay in a place you don’t fit in.” WOW. Maybe I misinterpreted what she was saying, but she literally associated the word “stupid” with not seeking out like-minded people. As if there aren’t pockets of personality types within one geographic region, as if getting up and leaving makes someone happy, and more importantly, as if it’s STUPID to stay: as if socioeconomic, familial, educational, political factors don’t keep people tied down to their current geographic location as well.
  • She kept saying that “lesbians and gays, they love just like any of us.” Umm hello lady, you’re in BROOKLYN. Thank you for joining the 21st century.

The worst part of all of this, I think, is that in a time when we should be trying to understand people as complex individuals, we’re STILL categorizing people. Not only does this perpetuate stereotypes, but it creates even greater divides between people. We can’t divide people into thrill-seeking-vs-rule-abiding and masculine-vs-feminine and expect to understand everything that drives a person and how they all in love.

But then again, if her whole presentation was “We don’t know what makes people fall in love except maybe for some vague sense of familiarity and comfort, because people are complicated and there is no formula”, then she wouldn’t have her job as “love-ologist” for

Lastly, I’m reminded of Lawrence Summers, the ex-president of that university… oh right, HARVARD. This guy, representing the most elite institution, gave a speech asking why more women aren’t in science. A fair enough question, except he went on to point to behavioral differences and supposedly “ingrained” differences between men and women and how that extends to math and science. But he was just asking a genuine question out of curiosity! Scientific curiosity! What’s the harm in that?

The harm is that social science is not neutral. When “science” confirms biases, justifies continued discrimination (“if you take testosterone you’ll change!” “if you take antidepressants you’ll change!” “you produce testosterone you are obviously better at math than that person who produces estrogen!”), it’s setting back equality rather than leveling the playing field. And this part, the social responsibility of social scientists to look at their research in the broader context of culture, and whether or not it’s undoing years of feminism, is a piece we should not ignore.

The damage is done. People will buy into what she’s saying. When we left my friends and I asked each other which personality type we were, and I jokingly answered GABA-A (an inhibitory neurotransmitter) because I can be really cautious sometimes. The joke being that of course, these neurotransmitters have a million complex roles, and in the end we all have all of them, can tap into them, can choose to be who we are just as much as we are predestined.

I leave with one last thought. In Harry Potter, there are 4 houses (omg! 4 personality types, 4 houses!). If you’ll remember, the sorting hat places people in a house based on their innate abilities: bravery (Gryffindor), success-drive (Slytherin), loyalty (Hufflepuff), cleverness (Ravenclaw). As the hat is placed on Harry’s head, Harry becomes fearful of being cultivated into a success-driven individual, afraid perhaps of unleashing the darkness that resides within him (his horcrux nature), and so he murmurs “Not Slytherin, Not Slytherin, Not Slytherin…” over and over agin. The sorting hat tells him he could be great in Slytherin, but respects his wishes and places him in Gryffindor. Later on, as he struggles with the implications of this choice–maybe he should have been a Slytherin, maybe he deserves to unleash his inner darkness–he turns to Dumbledore and confides that he had influenced the sorting hat’s decision. Dumbledore drops a wisdom bomb: “It is our choices, Harry, far more than our abilities, that make us who we are.”

If only this love lady had read that fantastic series and taken some of its lessons to heart. It may be easier to divide the world into 4 categories (which basically form a 2-dimensional space, if we’re looking at dopamine-serotonin as one continuum and estrogen-testosterone as another), but the truth is far more complicated and changeable than is profitable for a dating site. We don’t want to be lumped into categories: we just want someone to hear us. Fuck labels.

And fuck pseudoscience.


6 thoughts on “The science of love: what I learned last night

  1. I think my brain shut off after reading that Bill Clinton was our first female president. I’m curious, has she ever measured the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, or estrogen levels of these people? Because now I’m curious.

    Just. Ugh. I can’t even.


    • NO! Actually, while you asked about the evidence she presented, here’s what it is:

      She started with a description of love and the pathways that actually made some sense: that sexual attraction exists to make us want to get together with someone, romantic attraction exists to make us overlook all their bad qualities or at least accept them, and attachment exists to make us stand that person for at least 18 years. Funny. Cute. Okay.

      It was still ok when she got into brain scans her group did: they asked people who were in love to do a really boring mind-numbing task, and then to think about the person they loved, while in a “brain scanner” (I’m assuming an fMRI machine). The dopaminergic and oxytocinergic and maybe serotonergic pathways showed elevated activity. What this means is that once the complicated force of love has taken hold it activates pathways deep in our brain that implicate these pathways. That’s fine.

      Then she went on to deconstruct what each of these neurotransmitters do, and how we are attracted to people. If dopamine is elevated, then people tend to be more adventurous. Serotonin is linked to more like, stability or ordered thinking or something. (Actually its more complicated and low serotonin is linked to depression, so I don’t know). People who have more testosterone have different characteristics than people who have more estrogen.

      Then she made the observation that people who are more adventurous seek more adventurous people. People who are more traditional seek other traditional people. More feminine people often seek more masculine people. Etc. These are pretty big generalizations but sure, I can kinda see that.

      Then, where she went wrong, was to take a whole bunch of traits and link them ONLY to dopamine, or to serotonin, or to testosterone, or to estrogen. She sent out a survey to like 100,000 people or something, 56 questions: 14 were related to risk-seeking behavior, 14 to rule-abiding behavior/conformity, 14 to traditional masculinity, 14 to traditional femininity. And she attributed the risk-seeking behaviors to dopamine, etc etc. Sure. whatever. But she never actually measured the levels of dopamine serotonin etc in these individuals.

      She went on to say that these were biologically ingrained, that we are hard-wired to be a certain way. That this explains everything about an individual. Nevermind that people who take SSRIs or HRT don’t change personality. They’re biologically ingrained, end of story. Nevermind the effect of society– for example in the South there is statistically speaking a stronger presence of the church and traditional values in society, so that might explain why people become more rule-following: whereas, what she was saying, was the opposite: that people who aren’t serotonin types don’t stick around, and so the people who live in the south have BIOLOGICALLY higher serotonin. Ermmmm….

      (Note also that she never mentions oxytocin ever again as having an effect on personality. Instead she attributed trust/attachment with estrogen. Weird.)

      Oh and then lastly she said something along the lines of testosterone and empathy, that as men age their testosterone drops and they become more empathetic. I know women who also become more empathetic; probably because life experience makes people generally speaking more empathetic. But she implied that the correlation between testosterone drop later in life in men and subsequent increase in empathy is actually a causation.

      In the end someone asked a question about whether the questions measure innate personality or what, and she agreed that yes, people answer based on either innate traits or based on what they want others to think of them, so the answers are really just reflective of who they THINK they are. So she admitted that peoples’ sense of identity influences these traits. For example, I am a scared person generally but I love doing things that scare me because I think it’s good for me to challenge myself. I’m not predisposed to thrill-seeking behavior, but when asked if I’m adventurous I answer yes. It’s who I want to be, not who I am innately. So it’s not my biology that informs who I am; it’s my choices. In admitting this feature of her survey, she admitted that things aren’t as straightforward as biological predetermination. So really, she admits to skepticism being well-placed. But as I said, skepticism doesn’t sell, so she markets herself as a revolutionary and ignores the facts.

      Kinda like what she was saying people do in love: we ignore the negative traits and focus on the positive, blinded to facts. This is true; we all do this. She was hoping to wow us with her insights so that we wouldn’t see the flaws in the “facts” she gave.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Man, there is nothing better than listening to (or in this case reading) an actual scientist rip apart psuedoscience.

        Also, as a sociologically inclined person, I am deeply offended by her completely writing off the social (and even political and economic) implications of why we fall in love with who we fall in love with.

        Love, I’ve always found, is a fascinating scientific subject. I’d be interested to see valid studies done on the biology of love. Key word there being, of course, VALID.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hahaha… you shoulda heard my friend on the train, he was citing a million neuroscience papers that he’d read regarding the biology of personality types, which was incredibly exciting.
          Sociologists can have such incredible insight into human interaction, which is why it’s a shame when they do something bullshit like this. To be a good scientist, of any kind, you have to acknowledge when you are wrong. This woman used everything as evidence that her theory was correct, which isn’t helpful at all. And it just rubbed me the wrong way when she kept telling us as if most of the audience didn’t know, that the homos experience love the same exact way as the heteros. That’s hardly cutting-edge sociology research.

          Also why erase trans people and other non-cis identities? She offered no middle ground or subtlety in her assessment of gender roles and gender identity, but like, while she’s on the subject of gender roles maybe she could stand to study people who don’t fit her super privileged homogeneous idea of who falls in love. Again, not cutting-edge sociology either, to ignore the complexity of the phenomenon she’s studying. Which, I agree, is an absolutely fascinating topic and I want to know more, but not from her! 🙂

          OKAY I’ll stop ranting to you Aidan, and I might be able to find some more valid studies for ya! 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: “Boy”, the off-broadway play about nature vs. nurture: a review | Queering the Nerd

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