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Helen Fisher Is...What?
I've been getting these press releases about anthropologist Helen Fisher, who, apparently, has licensed her name and work to Chemistry.com:

In a message dated 1/17/07 7:36:02 AM, Melissa.Noon@WeberShandwick.com writes:

As Valentine’s Day is fast approaching, love seems to be everywhere: cupids in store windows, love songs on the radio, V-day candy and cards flooding your pharmacies, red roses being ordered by the dozens…the list seems endless.

Yet, Feb 14th, deemed by many as a “Hallmark holiday” or a ploy just to sell cards, is not always such a joyful day for single people around the country. George Clooney might seem like he enjoys his esteemed bachelor status, but maybe he is really looking for that perfect mate and just didn’t pay enough attention in Chemistry class….

Dr. Helen Fisher says that finding the right person is more a scientific process than a game of chance. As a world-renowned researcher who has traveled from the back-woods to the outback, into the field and back to the lab, Dr. Fisher, who works with Chemistry.com, has determined what makes humans fall in love. Our brains have a specific reaction when we sense a romantic attraction and biology can actually tell us with whom we will be most compatible. She says we are unconsciously attracted to those who complement us biologically, as well as socially, psychologically and intellectually. There are real chemical reactions involved in “chemistry.”

SNIP
As you start to think about Valentine’s Day stories, please consider Dr. Fisher as a resource who can discuss everything from tips to finding your soulmate, to the world’s worst matchmakers, to reasons why our beloved celebrity couples just can’t last.

Beloved celebrity couples? Are you sitting around thinking fondly of Britney and pondering why her marriage to Skanky didn't last? As I "start to think about Valentine's Day stories"? Gag.

I wrote back to Melissa Noon:

I have Helen Fisher's books, have referenced her work a number of times in my column, and heard her talk when I presented "How To Build A Better Meme" at the Human Behavior & Evolution Society Conference at Rutgers, but come on, is she really sitting around designing quizzes for Chemistry.com?

The real problem is with the companies that take advantage of Valentine's Day as a commercial enterprise, and highlight people being partnerless as if it's a problem. I suggest you check out the work of professor and researcher Bella DePaulo -- http://www.belladepaulo.com/ -- on the stigmatization of singles. Here's a column I wrote referencing her work (excerpted below):

DePaulo and Morris aren’t anti-couple; they were just surprised when their data showed most people suspect single equals loser -- even single people. When they asked 950 undergrads to describe the characteristics of married and single people in general, married people were assumed to be “mature, stable, honest, happy, kind, and loving.” Singles got nailed with “immature, insecure, self-centered, unhappy, lonely, and ugly.” Of course, the truth is, sometimes two is the loneliest number. Is there really anything lonelier than feeling completely alone when you’re in relationship with somebody else?

It doesn’t help that award-winning social scientists keep making bold pronouncements about the transformative power of marriage, like E. Mavis Hetherington’s claim, “Happily married couples are healthier, happier, wealthier, and sexier than are singles.” Don’t be too quick to assume they also have bigger breasts, flatter abs, and are less likely to be abducted by aliens. The above quote from Hetherington’s recently published book was just one of many examples cited by DePaulo and Morris of couple-glorifying sloppy methodology and data analysis. DePaulo told me via e-mail, “I think that cultural notions about singles and marrieds are so pervasive, and so unquestioned, that even respected scholars do less than their best work on the topic.” DePaulo and Morris point out the rather obvious flaw in Hetherington’s claim: She compared only happily married people to all single people. Wow, imagine that: Happily marrieds are more satisfied with their lives than, say, suicidal singles.

And here's an excerpt from a column I wrote referencing Helen Fisher's work:

Desire runs on the economics of scarcity. That's why diamonds, not speckled gray pebbles, "are forever," and why special occasions are celebrated with champagne and caviar, not tap water and a scoop of tuna. You want what's rare, or seems rare, not what's there 24/7 gassing up your couch.

Biology is not on our side. In fact, recent research suggests people in relationships are chemically predisposed to come to find each other about as sexually compelling as yesterday's Cream of Wheat. Another one of nature's charming practical jokes? Actually, anthropologist Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love, surmises sexual ennui was evolution's way of getting lovers to stop bouncing naked off the cave walls and raise their kids.

While, to the average person, a relationship seems to be one big crock pot of lust, attraction, and commitment, Fisher and other researchers see three distinct stages, each biochemically different. Lust, fueled by testosterone, gets you out in a short skirt looking for prey. In the attraction stage, you're drunk on a cocktail of dopamine and other excitors (the "love high"), still lusty, but laser-focused on one particular object of desire. Finally, there's the attachment stage, when the bonding chemicals vasopressin (in men) and oxytocin (in men and women) take over -- and getting off on each other tends to give way to nodding off on each other.

Sound familiar? Don't despair. Who says Mother Nature isn't ripe for a con? Helen Fisher suspects you can fool your biochemistry into believing you're still back in the chase phase. "Novel experiences drive up levels of dopamine in the brain," writes Fisher. This "can stimulate the release of testosterone, the hormone of sexual desire."

In other words, there's no security in security. Imagine, on the first date, if a guy ignored you to play Grand Theft Auto. Why is it any less a problem at the one-year mark? Clearly, you need to break up a little to have any hope of staying together. Move out and make like you're dating. Remember dates? They're special events where two people get all excited to see each other, put a lot of effort into looking and smelling seduction-friendly, pay close attention to each other, then, jump on each other instead of the Internet.

Fisher also cites experiments that suggest bringing an element of danger into a relationship can elevate a couple's dopamine. Perhaps you could relocate your boyfriend's lost libido while jumping out of an airplane or taunting mother bears. Or, if you aren't exactly a great outdoors type, just continue badgering him about whether he's attracted to you. Then again, while that might tempt him to throw himself off the nearest terrace, it probably isn't the kind of near-death experience Fisher had in mind.

Getting back to Melissa Noon, I wrote:

I wonder if you might rethink what you're doing -- the way you're doing it, capitalizing on the single as desperate thing -- as the problem, not part of the solution. If you actually care. PR can be a really important thing for getting out news that should be publicized, but not all PR is such a good thing. --Amy Alkon

Posted by aalkon at January 21, 2007 8:08 AM

Comments

The people I know who are in good long-term relationships, married or otherwise, are very happy. I'd love to have a relationship like that. But an unhappy marriage or equivalent thereof is my idea of hell. I think of that whenever people are equating "single" with "loser." Sure, I'd like to find someone with whom I can build a life - but only if that someone makes me happy enough for me to sacrifice some of my autonomy.

Am I desperate? Yes. Desperate to avoid being with someone just for the sake of being alone. Desperate to avoid spending a lot of time and energy on someone who was clearly the wrong person from the beginning. I have a rather idiosyncratic personality - a lot of guys just aren't going to fit well with me. Rather than making one of them, and myself, miserable by putting forth a lot of effort to maintain relationships with them, I stay single and looking. For this, I'm told by society that I'm less worthy. (This is one of the many reasons I enjoy reading what you write, Amy - it's nice to hear a counter to that assumption.)

Another annoying thing? When people aren't talking about what losers singles are, they're depicting single women as carelessly heedless of their biological clocks, living "Sex and the City" lifestyles until they wake up one day to find out that their eggs have expired. Now, obviously there are a hell of a lot of people out there besides Amy who don't want children, are self-aware enough to know that, and are enjoying not having that burden. But for those of us who would like to have bio-kids but don't want to deliberately kick off the process on our own, for a whole host of good reasons, hearing this ongoing "women need to start having babies earlier!" thing is incredibly annoying. Are we supposed to pair off with guys just to have children? Isn't that a really horrible thing to do to a kid?

I do agree that there are women out there who want bio-kids and erroneously believe that they can wait until they're 45 to start trying for them, and it would be good for them to have the facts. Me, I've used the information I've had to come to terms with the possibility that I might not have bio-kids, and to consider adoption, solo or otherwise, as another option with its own benefits. I think it would benefit other single 30something women to do the same - among other things, that might help some of them realize that they don't need to have kids, and let them make better choices about their lives as a result. I don't see that happening, unfortunately.

Posted by: marion at January 21, 2007 8:17 AM

I find it funny that people feel they can bug women about being single, but they won't do the same to a guy. If someone does start up with me, I usually recommend they redirect their energy to a single man, and tell them, "If you don't find a nice woman to settle down with now, you'll wind up sitting at a bar every night of the week with all the other older single guys."

And, hey, if those guys just love being there, more power to them-it's their lifestyle choice. It just pisses me off that we haven't moved past the 'spinster/bachelor' BS (where it's shitty to be a spinster but really cool to be a bachelor). Are we still living in the self-delusional 50s? (I prefer the psychedelic 60s!)

Posted by: Chris at January 21, 2007 8:52 AM

Chris: I live in a part of the country where guys do get bugged about being single, and get asked when they're going to propose to their girlfriends. No joke - I got asked "why is a nice girl like you still single?" not infrequently when I lived in the East Coast, but I haven't gotten asked that once here in the Southwest, even though I'm living in a city where everyone seems to get married early if possible.

As for the spinster/bachelor thing, a male friend of mine came to an interesting conclusion: Among groups of women, marrying first is seen as a good thing. Among groups of men, marrying first isn't seen as a good thing...but being the LAST guy to marry also isn't seen as being a good thing. Interesting way of looking at it...

Posted by: marion at January 21, 2007 12:11 PM

Marion, thanks for the update. I guess how much you get bugged depends on where you live.

Posted by: Chris at January 22, 2007 7:26 AM

One reason I am glad I don't want kids is that I don't have to run around like chicken with my head cut off, trying to find a suitable sperm donor before my eggs reach their "best if used by" date. I guess I'd have to sacrifice my desire for passion and chemistry in a relationship and settle for "good father material" who could provide financial stability. Just thinking about it makes me feel bored. I'm not even seeing anyone right now, and that still seems less boring by comparison.

Posted by: Pirate Jo at January 22, 2007 11:27 AM

Hello Amy, I have just entered the world of blogging and in looking around, I found you. So I would like to explain to you why, in your words, I am “sitting around designing quizzes for Chemistry.com.”

The short answer is that I have the opportunity to study some 1.6 million men and women who have joined this site, (my thanks to them), in order to understand more about one of humankind’s great mysteries: why you fall in love with one person rather than another.

This is a far more complex-—and genuine—enterprise than you imagine. It began two years ago when Match.com came to me to ask me this single question: Why him? why her? No one knows. Psychologists know that we are attracted to those of the same ethnic and socio-economic background, as well as those with a similar level of education, intelligence, good looks and religious and social values. We also fall in love with those who supply our needs. And certainly one’s childhood plays a role. But when scientists administer personality tests to long-married couples, NO patterns emerge.

So after a good deal of reading, I have come to believe that humans fall into four very broad genetic types, what I call the Explorer, Builder, Negotiator and Director--each associated respectively with the activities of dopamine, serotonin, estrogen and testosterone. Moreover, I theorize that we are regularly attracted to individuals (from our background) who have a different genetic profile. This way partners bear more varied young and co-parent with a wider array of parenting skills.

It is this hypothesis that I am examining on our new site, Chemistry.com. And I now have data on some 523,622 people--data that are helping Chemistry.com match men and women more effectively, and data that I hope will enhance our understanding of mate choice—one of the most important decisions we make in life.

I’ll keep you blogged on how it goes. Cheers, Helen Fisher

Posted by: Helen Fisher at January 30, 2007 3:17 PM

Dear Doctor Fisher,
Thank you so much for searching this out and taking the time to respond. I've read and respected your work, and I'm glad you aren't just looking for P.R....not that there's anything wrong with publicity. In fact, in my column, I work to publicize your work and that of other ev psych researchers to provide practical solutions to ordinary people's problems. I look forward to seeing the results of your work -- and just wish you'd present at HBES conferences that don't only take place at Rutgers. All the best, -Amy Alkon

P.S. I hope you liked what I did with your work in my column above, from Why We Love.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at January 30, 2007 8:33 PM

Thank you, Amy. Its always so gratifying when someone writes about my work clearly and accurately, and in your case in such an engaging style as well. Yes, HBES conferences are suberb. I always want to attend and then I get so incredibly wrapped up in my work that, alas, I don’t. Anyway, I will start my own blog this week, I think. Would you like to exchange links? I am not quite sure how to phrase this offer, as the lingo is still new to me, but whatever, I’ll be “seeing” you! Cheers, H.

Posted by: Helen Fisher at February 1, 2007 7:52 AM

Thanks...that means a lot to me. I work really hard to get the information right. And I'd be honored to exchange links. Let me know when you're up, and I'll link to you. Looking forward to reading you regularly on the web! -Amy

Posted by: Amy Alkon at February 1, 2007 9:19 AM

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