Brain Chemistry, People, and Personalities: What is the Same and What is Different - A review of an article on Biological Anthropologist Helen Fisher’s work on the neurological bases of personality types in HBR, March-April 2017.

Helen Fisher’s work on brain chemistry has been featured in TED Talks and NPR interviews, and originally focused on relationships for companies such as and Lately her work has been getting attention in business settings and implications for team effectiveness and reducing office conflict. We’ve looked at this work to provide a quick take on what is the same and different from the more commonly used personality assessments such as Myers-Briggs and StrengthsFinder.

What is the same: All assessments (including Fisher’s) are used as a means of understanding how we all are different when it comes to processing information, making decisions, working with others, etc. Whether our preference is for detail or big picture, rational or emotional thought processes, we can use the perspectives any assessment provides to better understand individual behaviors. We can also ensure that we elicit complementary modes of thinking when making decisions, and even tailor a presentation to a specific audience. All assessments acknowledge the need to flex our style to a certain degree. Last, if we are smart, it is less “We need a strong intuitive style to help us here” rather “Let’s make sure we have considered multiple perspectives before we make our decision.”

What is different: Fisher’s research is all neurologically based. She found that four biological systems – dopamine/norepinephrine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen/oxytocin – are each linked to a set of personality traits. These traits range from creativity and spontaneity (dopamine), direct and tough-mindedness (testosterone), and intuition and trusting (estrogen/oxytocin). Fisher holds that these four systems evolved from our hunter-gatherer societies over many generations. She worked with a statistician to create a set of questions that measures the degree to which people express the traits in each of these four systems.

Implications: Eventually, the advances in neuroscience will lead to more reliable ways of uncovering personality preferences. For now though, assessments remain a great way to provide insight into one’s own and colleagues styles, preferences and ways of working together. We also think the truism that “preference does not necessarily equate to performance” is one to be heeded, so be thoughtful about how you use any assessment in the workplace.


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