Apr 1, 2009

Helen Fisher's Types: Explorer, Builder, Director, Negotiator

In a previous post I wrote of a personality and matching test at Chemistry.com that was developed by researcher Helen Fisher. We are already seeing some possible patterns in how her types correspond to socionic types, and I encourage readers to take the test if they haven't already and share their results in that post. 

The best introduction to Fisher's research is this half-hour interview with her by Nicole Simon. Here Fisher talks about the history of her research, her main findings, and the types themselves. Each type is supposedly related to one of four chemicals that broadly influences personality: dopamine (a neurotransmitter), serotonin (neurotransmitter), testosterone (hormone), and estrogen (hormone). 

Explorer: (more dopamine expression) -- risk-taking, curious, creative, impulsive, optimistic and energetic

Builder: (more serotonin expression) -- cautious but not fearful, calm, traditional, community-oriented, persistent and loyal

Director: (more testosterone expression) -- very analytical, decisive, tough-minded; they like to debate and can be aggressive

Negotiator: (more estrogen expression) -- broadminded imaginative, compassionate, intuitive, verbal, nurturing, altruistic and idealistic

(descriptions taken from Fisher herself in Time article)

These types have a fairly clear biological basis:

There was a great deal of data that people vary in terms of their expression of dopamine and norepinephrine, serotonin, estrogen and oxytocin and testosterone. I culled from the academic literature all of those data points that show that these particular brain-chemical systems are related to certain aspects of personality. And I saw constellations of temperament traits that seemed to be associated with these chemicals.

Why Fisher did not include the neurotransmitter norepinephrine or the hormone oxytocin in her system is unclear. Perhaps the related personality traits were less obvious or fundamental. In the interview she states that people have been talking of 4 types for thousands of years, and she feels there's a reason for that. This is another case of the form of an idea being more lasting than its content (which I talked about in the previous post on the Enneagram) -- in this case, that there are four types. How these types are defined has varied widely. And is the four-based system an actual attribute of nature, or simply how our logical, order-seeking brain would like to see things? 

Fisher attaches a second type to the first as a sort of auxiliary feature, creating a system of 12 possible combinations. 

Socionics and Fisher's types

From the summaries given by Fisher, it appears that each of these four chemicals corresponds at least somewhat to more than one socionics category:

Dopamine: extraverted intuition, extraversion, irrationality

Serotonin: rationality, introversion, sensing

Testosterone: logic, sensing

Estrogen: ethics, intuition

So, a common type for an ILE might be "EXPLORER/director," for IEE - "EXPLORER/negotiator," for IEI "NEGOTIATOR/explorer," for ILI "NEGOTIATOR/director," for LSE "DIRECTOR/builder," etc.

Fisher says that Explorers are the rarest type (8%), and builders the most common (>40%). 

Fisher identifies herself as an EXPLORER/negotiator. 

Type development

Fisher says that while our natural propensities are genetically determined, much of our brain chemistry is dependent on situational factors, and our type may change or become more or less evident. This is a different view than socionics, but not necessarily a conflicting one, since the two typologies are based on different principles. 

I find this possibility intriguing. I would say that my "Explorer" type fully awakened only at the age of 23 under the influence of a host of external factors. If I had remained in the situation I was in, I might be a different type today or simply a less obvious Explorer. If you find a natural Director working away at a dull job and make him the coach of a college football team, the experience could trigger a metamorphosis in him and a long-term change in his career direction. 

Before a string of deeply "exploratory" experiences (spending extensive time abroad in Slovakia and Russia), I was a star math student planning on majoring in math in college. After spending 3 years abroad speaking two different foreign languages and being exposed to new ways of life, however, I could no longer focus my mind on math. It simply did not provide the rewards I had now come to expect from my activities: experiencing new things, seeing new places, meeting new people, and perfecting and applying my language skills. I think all these activities had activated my dopamine system in some way such that my brain had become reliant upon dopamine stimulation, which I could not get from mathematics. The propensity for this "dependency" was certainly built into my system to begin with. Had I had been a different "Fisher type" to begin with, my experiences abroad may not have had such a lasting impact on my path in life. The vast majority of people who went through the same experiences I did returned to life in the U.S. with only slightly modified career plans at most. 

Intertype attraction

I have found conflicting views on which types attract which, seemingly from Helen Fisher herself. One view is that each type is attacted to its own. The other view is that Explorers and Builders attract (despite there being 5 times more builders) and Directors and Negotiators attract. My type profile (I am EXPLORER/negotiator) said I "tend to naturally gravitate to EXPLORER/director." 

The conflicting statements on mutual attraction suggest that the correlation is weak or borderline, and that Fisher herself is not entirely sure yet. But she may not be able to say that outright, since she is being paid by these matchmaking websites to provide a matching algorithm. Correct me if anyone has read her latest book and has more information.


I think the study of chemicals and their effects of personality is a high-prospect direction of inquiry. It is based on a body of scientific research and lends itself to empirical study, meaning that strangers can work on research all at once and build on each other's findings with ease -- quite the opposite of socionics or the Enneagram, where people have to communicate closely and extensively to transfer knowledge. 

Emerging patterns of correlation between socionic types and Fisher's types open up the possibility of discovering the roots of certain socionic categories in brain chemicals. The four Fisher focuses on are not the only chemicals known to influence personality, but certainly some of the most important and best researched ones. 


HIM said...


It's an article on dopamine that might prove interesting in seeing how it may correlate to certain socionics elements.

HIM said...

These are not related to chemicals persay, but I might as well mention them:


copy and paste I guess.

tcaudilllg said...

Machintruc was working on this, but he says he doesn't have time for it now....

From my personal experience with psychiatric medications, I don't think the chemicals themselves have anything to do with type; I think, rather, than they represent estimations of content volume by the functions. I once took Abilify, and it disfigured my Ti(Se).

Fisher comes off to me like something of a megalomaniac, like Freud was. I remember how unfazed she was after a broad subset of her arranged matches failed to work out on national television. (was it 20/20?) She needs to stick with the cultural bit and stay out of trait psychology.... Unless, that is, she's going to be serious about it and give socionics its due.

tcaudilllg said...

I just read in Wired Magazine about how Paul Allen's brain atlas project has found literally hundreds of variations between neuron types. That idea that all neurons were alike? The conclusion is that it's bullshit. The functions are going to be found by studied of individual neuron differences, not neurotransmitters. (if anything, the neurotransmitters are only relevant to measurements).

Rick said...

>> From my personal experience with psychiatric medications, I don't think the chemicals themselves have anything to do with type; I think, rather, than they represent estimations of content volume by the functions.

That's certainly possible. There are a number of different places or processes that could be the root of socionic type. As I read more about the brain, I'm thinking that it's probably not the amount of any given neurotransmitter that translates into type. I have some ideas that are taking shape, but I still feel like too much of an amateur to write about them. I need to study the subject some more.

Rick said...

Thanks for the articles, HIM! I'll get to those for sure.

jason_m said...

Yeah, I was going to say that there are some problems with the neurotransmitter ideas.

Mainly: how do we define the way neurotransmitters are involved in type? For example, is it the amount of dopamine that is responsible for behaviour, or the amount of dopamine receptors? Further, dopamine plays a different role in different parts of the brain, and so perhaps the receptors aren't evenly distributed, creating different types of dopamine-related behaviour.

I don't think that these problems are unresolvable at all, but they have to be explored more concretely.

Based on my knowledge of psychiatric drugs, I would say that the *amount* of brain chemical would generally work in the following ways:

1) Dopamine: more dopamine = higher energy level, sharper thinking; less dopamine = less motivation,
energy, etc.

2) Serotonin: more serotonin = more relaxed behaviour, less serotonin = more uptight, worrying, obsessive-compulsive behaviour.

(Not as sure about the following)

3) Testosterone = degree of aggression.

4) Estrogen = degree of nurturing behaviour.

Based on my experience, I think that it probably isn't the amount of a neurotransmitter that affects behaviour as much as other factors.

gulanzon said...

From what I see, the types are divided into two pairs: let's call them brain and hormone (builder/explorer and negotiator/director).

Each person has one type from each pair. One is dominant.

Brain types attract like, hormone types attract unlike.

This is addressing your "Intertype attraction" section. Sorry if it's already been raised in above post, but I take critical damage from walls of text falling on my head.

Anonymous said...

I've done an analysis of Elen Fisher's personality typing system with respect to socionics.

I grouped these types into Builder:


(calm, traditional, loyal, family-oriented, etc.)

These types into Explorer:

EIE, IEE, ILE, and ESE. (i.e., Enneagram Sevens.)

These types into Director:

LSI, LII, and SLE. [Ti (analytical) + Se (tough-minded)]

And these types into Negotiator:


(imaginative + nurturing).

I tried to figure out what the common relations would be, based on the matchups that Fisher suggests. The most common relation would be supervision (six relations), followed by a tie between duality and conflict (three relations).

If we look at it from the perspective of socionics, what I basically think is that this may be a good theory of interpersonal attraction, but it is not as good of a theory with respect to intimacy; I could easily visualize conflictors, supervisor partners, and duals being attracted to one another, but these relations are not always the best for long-term relationships (at least according to socionics, and assuming that I have categorized the types correctly).

Jason - "jason_m"

Jason said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jarrett said...

You could probably mix and match various psychological traits and get an infinite number of possibilities. But by grouping things together, you stop thinking of it's underlying fluid nature, and start to believe people actually fit under certain immutable personality types.

Like, instead of saying: "Explorer: more dopamine expression, -insert info here-"

it could be the other way around:

"Dopamine: -insert info here- ETC., one could relate it to our exploratory behavior."

I think it should be left to each individual to categorize things in the way their own mind interprets it. Instead, though, we often recieve the crystalized product of what was once fluid thinking. Look, if you're gonna learn about sand castles, you might as well start with sand... But that doesn't happen. You see a particular sandcastle, and your perception of a sandcastle is forever focalized on it.. Anything that doesn't fit the image of that sandcastle would not be seen as a sandcastle, even though it may very well be made out of sand. It may not look like a castle, but then again, you can apply this same thought to your perception of a castle.

Ok, wow, this thought has trailed off long enough...

James said...

I have read her book, and your conclusions are not entirely correct....

She states that Explorers attract Explorers, Builders attract Builders.... Like minded traits, however Directors attract negoiators and negoiators are attarcted to directors because their styles complement one another...

The chemicals you stated that she didnt use for her primary types she does mention in the book in her later chapters... She states that these are enhancing chemicals that can work in conjunction with her primaries, but are not primaries on their own.... Its more of volume knob, they turn different attributes of her primary types up or down....