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MARCH 04, 2021

The Biology of Good Relationships

Maintaining good relationships can help reduce stress, increase happiness and improve overall quality of life. BMO’s purpose is to “Boldly Grow the Good in Business and Life,” and good relationships are important part of both.

With that in mind, we recently hosted an event with Dr. Helen Fisher, a neuroscientist and biological anthropologist, in which she discussed the biology of good relationships. A senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and chief scientific advisor for, Fisher has presented several TED talks and has spoken at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She's the author of five books and her articles have appeared in The Wall Street Journal and The Economist.

Following is a summary of Fisher’s presentation, edited for length and clarity.


The benefits of good relationships

Fisher’s studies of the human brain led to an understanding of the biology of personality, and how science can help build vibrant relationships. To start, there are the physical benefits. Fisher noted that maintaining good partnerships—whether with clients, colleagues, friends, spouses or your children—can help lower blood pressure, cholesterol and cortisol, which is the stress hormone. Good relationships also improve mood, memory, mental agility, decision making and emotional processing. Those who don’t develop these attachments tend to suffer physically.

"The bottom line is emotionally isolated people suffer from a lot more diseases,” Fisher said. “Scientists now say that isolated people suffer just as much as people who smoke too much, get no exercise, gain a lot of weight, or have high blood pressure.”

It’s also good business sense. “About 85% of your success at work depends on good relationships,” Fisher said. “So you have to connect with people, and you have to connect in a way so that you can move forward together.”


The four basic personality types

So, how do you develop happy, healthy and successful relationships? Fisher said it starts with understanding the brain circuitry of different personality types. From there, you can reach people who think and behave differently than you. While people tend to feel drawn to certain personality types—as well as to people with certain values and demographic traits—it’s essential to be able to establish relationships with those whose personalities differ from yours.

Through her research, Fisher discovered four basic brain systems, each of which is associated with a constellation of personality traits.

  • Dopamine system. Fisher calls these personality types “explorers.” “They’re novelty-seeking and risk taking. They're more curious and have the most interests. They make the most money, they also lose the most money because they are risky. They’re mentally flexible, open-minded and idea generating. These are the people in your company who are much more likely to be innovative. On the downside, they can be susceptible to boredom.”
  • Serotonin system. Fisher describes these “builders” as people who observe social norms. "They like plans, they like routines, they're orderly, they're persistent. They’re fact-oriented, they’re concrete thinkers, they're literal and they're detail-oriented.”
  • Testosterone system. What Fisher calls “directors,” she said this personality type “tends to be analytical and tough-minded. They’re logical—very good at things like math, engineering computers or music. They’re inventive, experimental, exacting. They’re rank-oriented. They’re competitive and they will verbally attack. And if you don't attack back, they think you're weak.”
  • Estrogen system. Fisher refers to this type as “negotiators.” “They tend to be pro-social and empathetic. These people are web thinkers—they're contextual, long-term, holistic thinkers who see the big picture. They’re very imaginative, mentally flexible, and can deal with ambiguity. They're very good at climbing into your head and trying to figure out what you’re doing. They are intuitive, nurturing and trusting.”


The “Platinum Rule”

While these personality types offer basic guidelines, Fisher was quick to note that that no person is just one thing. Each of us contains some elements from all of these brain systems. “I think that real leaders are skilled in all four of these styles of thinking, or can at least understand all four and use them appropriately at the right moment,” Fisher said. “These four broad styles of thinking evolved together, and I think we need all four in business.”

Developing relationships across the four types requires a certain type of emotional intelligence. Fisher pointed out that she doesn’t subscribe to the Golden Rule—that is, treat others as you wish to be treated. “I believe in the Platinum Rule—do unto others as they would have done unto themselves,” she said. “You can climb into the core of who they are. You're not going to change what you've got to say, but you can say it differently so that you can reach them.”

Fisher provided the example of a meeting with people high on the serotonin scale—those who tend to be detail-oriented. "If we haven't finished what we were supposed to do today, I'll say something like,

OK, tomorrow at 9 a.m. we will meet. We will resolve this issue in the first 15 minutes, and then we will move on. They need things resolved for them.”

When you’ve learned to identify the different personality types, you’ll be better equipped to create the type of relationship that’s fulfilling and sustainable for all parties involved. As Fisher said, “Figure out who they are, and treat them the way they want to be treated, and you can make happy, healthy relationships with them.”

Shannon Kennedy
Shannon Kennedy
Head U.S. Advisory and interim Head, U.S. Wealth Management
BMO Wealth Management
Shannon Kennedy is Head U.S. Advisory and interim Head, U.S. Wealth M…
Shannon Kennedy is Head U.S. Advisory and interim Head…
Shannon Kennedy is Head U.S. Advisory and interim Head, U.S. Wealth Management, an integrated wealth management pr…