personality psychology

Are You a Head Person or a Heart Person?

Imagine meeting a stranger and having a chance to learn what sort of person they are by asking just one question. You might try the obvious: “Are you an introvert or an extrovert?” Or you could probe their political leanings: “Are you Republican or Democrat?” In each case, you’d hope the answer would tell you a fair bit about the person’s psychology.

Here’s a question you probably wouldn’t think of, but which new research suggests could be surprisingly informative: “Do you think your ‘self’ is located in your heart or in your brain?”

There’s some recent research history to this question: A series of studies published in 2013 asked this question to hundreds of undergrad students at North Dakota State University. The researchers, Adam Fetterman and Michael Robinson, found that people’s answers correlated with a range of important and revealing psychological characteristics.

For example, people who said their “self” was located in their heart (about half the respondents) were more likely to be female, and “heart-locators” of either sex were more likely to rely on their emotions when making hypothetical moral decisions, such as how to respond to a sadistic prison guard who says he will kill your son and another prisoner unless you kill your own son. In this situation, heart-locators were more likely than “head-locators” to say they’d refuse to kill their own son — the more emotional and, in the specific circumstances, less rational choice because they were effectively condemning two people to die rather than one.

Other studies in the series found that people who saw their self as located in their brain tended to perform better on general-knowledge tests and to react less emotionally to stress. Of course, we refer to the heart and brain metaphorically all the time (“follow your heart” versus “use your head”) in a way that suggests we think of the heart as representing the emotions and the head as the seat of reason. These survey findings suggest that whether someone sees their essence as being located in their heart or brain tells us something literal about the person in question.  

Now, researchers have taken this idea in new, even more nuanced and interesting directions.

A recent study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes reports that where people locate their sense of self even has ramifications for their views on controversial medical issues such as abortion laws and the appropriate criteria for determining whether a person is dead.

In surveys of hundreds of U.S. and Indian citizens conducted online via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk website, the research team, led by Adam Galinsky at Columbia Business School, used a range of creative ways for establishing whether someone is a heart person or a brain person — these techniques prompted participants to reflect more deeply than would a straightforward question, and gave an indication of how much a person located their self in the heart versus the brain or other body part, rather than it being a simple either/or issue.  

For example, imagine you plan for various organs to be donated after you die so that your “self” lives on in these people. Imagine, too, that you had $100 million to bequeath to the different organ recipients — how would you distribute the money among them? The researchers found most people gave the lion’s share of the money to the brain-receiver and heart-receiver (presumably, participants saw these recipients as now containing more of their own essence), with only a small amount passed on to the receivers of the eyes, stomach, spine, and other parts. Consistent with the research from 2013, there was evidence that men are more often primarily head-locators: They showed a strong tendency to give more money to the brain-recipient than heart-recipient, whereas this bias was far weaker in women.

The researchers also found — this time using a simpler question about where the self is located — that heart-locators of either sex were more likely to endorse proposals for stricter abortion laws based on the initial detection of a heartbeat in the fetus, and to endorse the idea that a person’s death should be determined by when the heart stops beating rather than brain death. In a survey of U.S. college students, these researchers further established — perhaps unsurprisingly — that heart-locators are more likely to support heart-disease charities and that brain-locators are biased toward brain-based charities (such as an Alzheimer’s disease charity).

Galinsky’s team members think a key trait that’s related to where we locate the sense of self in the body is whether we see ourselves as independent or interconnected with other people. Supporting this, people recruited in India — a “collectivist culture” — were more likely to locate their self in the heart. Moreover, when the researchers prompted American students to reflect on their independence (by having them read a paragraph full of first-person pronouns like me and I), they were more likely to locate their sense of self in the brain, whereas when the researchers prompted students to think of their social interconnectedness with a passage filled with pronouns like we and our, the opposite was true: These participants were more likely to locate their sense of self in the heart.

Galinksy and his colleagues are confident they are onto something important here. “We propose that a person’s perception of where the sense of self is located is a critical and defining trait similar to a person’s … personality profile,” they write. If true, this opens up a whole new area for research. Where you locate your sense of self might influence your aptitude for different occupations; it could influence the kind of marketing that moves you (emotional versus fact-based ads), and perhaps how you interpret other people — heart-locators might be drawn to strangers who seem warm, whereas you’d expect brain-locators to be more impressed by intellectual clout. And who knows, maybe the idea will find its way into online-dating profiles: “I’m a young professional with a good sense of humor, and I’m seeking a fun-loving fellow heart-locator.”

Dr. Christian Jarrett is editor of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog. His latest book is Great Myths of the Brain.

Are You a Head Person or a Heart Person?