How Cosmetics R&D Should Be Using Neuroscience


Editor’s note: This interview features neuroscientist Helen Fisher, Ph.D., who will give the Frontiers of Science Award Lecture during the December 2015 SCC Annual Meeting in New York. Cosmetics & Toiletries is sponsoring her presentation.

C&T: Did you ever think cosmetics R&D would be interested in neuroscience?

Helen Fisher: I think most everybody would be. It’s a way of understanding behavior and it’s a good half of the personality puzzle. There’s two parts to personality: culture and biology, and this second half is what I will talk about. Some people really are actually better at math. Some are more stubborn, risk-taking, like what’s “familiar,” are more empathetic, etc. I think any industry would be smart to embrace neuroscience.

C&T: Do you see a connection between neuroscience and innovation?

HF: Absolutely. When people talk about innovation, they’re really often talking about the climate of innovation. But how do you change the office milieu so that people can be more innovative?

From a neuroscience perspective, not all people are alike. They have different skills—they can learn all kinds of new skills, but some are naturally better at some things than others. And [like personality], climate is only half of the puzzle. The other half is who you’re talking to, who you’re putting into the innovative process. That’s what I don’t see [companies] doing.

C&T: Describe your findings about personality styles.

HF: I think we’ve evolved four very broad styles of thinking and behaving linked with the dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen systems in the brain. I created a questionnaire to see to what degree people express traits linked with each of these four basic biological systems. I’m chief scientific advisor for, so that questionnaire was put up on their website and has now been taken by more than 14 million people in 40 countries—big data.

[The data shows] that if you’re very expressive of the dopamine system, you tend to be novelty-seeking, risk-taking, curious, creative, spontaneous, energetic and mostly creative. If you’re very expressive of the serotonin system, you tend to be traditional, conventional, follow the rules, respect authority and think concretely, not theoretically. You’re also often very good at logistics, and processes, and you like what’s “familiar.”

The third type is very expressive of the testosterone system, which includes women as well as men, although there are many more men in the category. These people are very analytical, logical, direct, decisive, tough-minded, good at rule-based systems—everything from engineering to math to mechanics to computers and music, too; music is very spatial.

The fourth is linked with the estrogen system. These people tend to be intuitive and imaginative, they can deal with ambiguity and they do what I call “web thinking”—they see things in a large, long-term context and look way ahead, way down the line. They’ve got good verbal and “people” skills, and they tend to be empathetic and emotionally expressive.

C&T: How do these styles impact innovation?

HF: I think if you really want innovation, you should assemble a team of all four broad styles of thinking and behaving. Each of the four brain systems is linked with a constellation of personality traits, and it appears that these four broad styles evolved to work together, bringing to the table very different and great skills. So if you want innovation, you have to do a good deal more than just provide the opportunity or climate for innovation; you’ve got to compose a group of people who, from a neuroscience perspective, have a range of skills that, together, will be able to really come up with innovations.

There are also different kinds of innovation. Some people are just full of ideas; those are probably going to be the high dopamine type. Some are good at creating technology and devices; those are going to be the high testosterone type. The high-serotonin type are going to be good at processes and creating efficiencies, and the high estrogen types are going to be more services-oriented. They will think more about the person receiving the product or idea. This is not to say that they all can’t do some level of all of the above. [From the management standpoint], you’ve got to know what you want, and then you can compose the team.

Also, it’s not only good to know who you are, but it’s important to know who you are not. For example, I am not at all a techie but when you’re trying to innovate in a high-tech situation, I might be good in the room because of my [ignorance]. You may have a new invention but you’re going to have to explain it to Helen Fisher—along with a lot of other clients. So I come with skills that are not about the making of the product, but maybe about the selling of the product.

The bottom line is, neuroscience has clearly shown there are four broad styles of thinking and behaving. When you begin to bear this in mind, the type of team you build for innovation is going to be more solid.

C&T: How do the personality styles interact?

HF: A person who’s very high testosterone is the kind of person who’s going to shout “Get to the point!” They want big ideas first, then they want you to back them up with all the techie stuff.

A high dopamine type wants the big idea first and they don’t really care if it’s sort of off-the-wall. They can play with ideas, and they can tolerate risk.

A high-serotonin type really needs every single detail and they want all those details first before they get to the big idea. Because they like “the familiar” and concrete, and don’t tend to be theoretical.

C&T: Do the four personality styles vary from ethnicity to gender, or region to age?

HF: When I created the questionnaire for, they asked, “Will this questionnaire work in other countries?” And I said, “If it doesn’t, I have failed.” I’m not studying the American personality, I’m studying the human personality.

Now, we know there’s a gene in the serotonin system that’s linked to “social norm conformity”—that is, following the rules and respecting authority. And that particular gene is most prevalent in China and Japan. So in different countries, you’re going to see different ratios of different kinds of people. I mean, one of the things they say in Japan is, “The nail that sticks out is hammered down.”

America is full of very creative people. In fact, economists a couple years ago said that long after we [Americans] are no longer “trying to run the world,” we will still probably be one of the most creative groups. It’s the creative people who leave [other places] and come to a place like America. They’re risk-takers who are willing to get into a boat [and go].

So the bottom line is, every country is going to have the full range of people. Again, I’m not studying the American brain but the human brain, and it has not changed in 200,000 years.

C&T: Could product development target these specific personalities through marketing messages?

HF: Absolutely. I’ve studied the kind of art [that different types] of people like, and the words they use. The high dopamine types I call the “explorers,” and they tend to use words like venture, adventure, fun, travel, new and interesting. People who are very high testosterone tend to use words like geek, real, challenge, politics and skeptical. People very expressive of the serotonin system, I call them “builders,” tend to use words like family, values, trust, trustworthy, stable and concrete. You should use the kinds of words the people you’re selling to use. Now the issue is, when you want to reach everybody, what do you do?

I worked with Procter & Gamble on the board of Gilette, and they found they had four different types of men buying their products. Sure enough, the four different types represented these four blood-brain systems. When they tried to sell to one type of person, surely enough, that person bought a lot of their products—but the other three types did not. So marketing departments are going to have to think about what they want to do with this [personality style] information.

C&T: Give an example of how your research currently is being applied.

HF: The [personality] questionnaire is the first in the world using [brain circuitry] to prove what it’s measuring. For example, the Myers-Briggs personality questionnaire is one of many created from linguistic studies and not made from understanding the brain. So these cannot really prove what they are measuring. Now they work; they are about 80% right, which is “right enough” so that the business world uses them. But the bottom line is they don’t factor in brain physiology, and they are really immersed in their own cultural perspectives. This means you can see the data right in front of your face and misinterpret it because your culture sees the world that way.

C&T: What unanswered questions do you have? What are the ‘next steps’ in your work?

HF: I want to continue to perfect my understanding of personality. For example, within the high estrogen type of personality there are two sub-types: people who are very empathetic, and people who are ruminating. There also are two sub-clusters in the testosterone scale: people who are tough-minded and people who are very technically skilled.

A good example of somebody who’s tough-minded but probably not technically skilled is Steve Jobs. He didn’t make iPhones. He had great ideas but he wasn’t in his garage creating these things; but he was a very tough-minded guy. Whereas somebody like Bill Gates was in his garage creating these, but does not appear to be a very tough-minded guy.

The bottom line is: I need to continue to perfect mine and the world’s understanding of personality. So I will keep gathering questionnaires and analyzing responses, and I definitely want to do the genetics of it.

C&T: What are future applications of your work?

HF: There’s one thing that I’d really like to do. ... In my work with, at one point we were in Paris to bring a new version of the datasite to the French. I was sent to Paris to explain how it works to various journalists.

[For this event], Match hired a Parisian perfumer, and I had sent this perfumer information on the basic traits grouped with each of the personality styles. So for the dopamine-type: risk-taking, novelty-seeking, curious, spontaneous, energetic, etc., etc. The perfumer had these four descriptions and he made four perfumes that he thought would appeal to each of the four basic types of people.

Before the journalists talked to me, they took my questionnaire and smelled the four perfumes. Over the course of three days, I met with 18 individual journalists and explained to them the four personality types. Amazingly, 16 of the 18 found they liked the perfume designed for their biologically based personality style best.

There are all kinds of perfumes marketed [toward personality type] but they are not [developed] using brain circuitry. Some day, I’d like to attempt to create four perfumes that appeal to the four broad personality styles. I would sell them as a unit of four so when you know you’re going to be going out with such-and-such kind of person, you wear the perfume that would appeal to them. Or you’re going into a business meeting with a high testosterone level, and want to wear one that appeals to high-testosterone types.

I’ve talked to several people in the perfume industry and so far they all really like the idea but they’re locked into their own thing. This would be a “disruptive” technology. One of the problems is when [companies] find something that works, they just keep doing it more and more and more, rather than trying something new. But eventually, somebody’s going to make some money on this idea.

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