Love on the Brain
Personality tests are popular—as is deriding the quizzes as unscientific scams. But last November, the Wall Street Journal reported on a potentially more robust test: a "brain-based personality assessment" developed by biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has also advised for Match.com and been featured as a science-backed love expert in Time and Nautilus. The Fisher Temperament Inventory tells people how strongly their personalities reflect each of four neurochemicals or hormones: dopamine, supposedly the marker of explorers; serotonin, signal of builders; testosterone, denoting directors; and estrogen, marking negotiators. Lauding the test's potential as a love-match guide, the Journal quotes Fisher calling it "a new way of understanding personality," different from others in that it doesn't sort people into discrete "buckets" or types, which fail to capture the complexity of personality.
Is This Really New?
In fact, plenty of older personality tests place people on a spectrum. Big Five assessments, favored by social scientists, score people on a scale for five major traits—like neuroticism and level of extraversion—that tend to appear across many cultures. Even the heavily critiqued Myers-Briggs test results rank takers on scales across four personality dimensions. What truly distinguishes the FTI is its basis in neuroscience. But rigorous study of the inventory is still in its infancy—much like our understanding of the relationship between neurobiology and personality to begin with.
As tempting as the promise of a new love and personality guru may be, FTI enthusiasts should check the hype. It's a remix of old personality test principles, not yet validated through extensive testing. Even the key relationship advice Fisher says all personality types should take away from her system—"do unto others as they would have done unto themselves"—sounds like it could have come from a half-baked BuzzFeed quiz, rather than a brain study.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2018 issue of Pacific Standard. Subscribe now and get eight issues/year or purchase a single copy of the magazine. It was first published online on April 20th, 2018, exclusively for PS Premium members.