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Who Uses Their Head and Who Listens to Their Heart?

Choosing between your head or your heart might be easier than you think.

This post is in response to
What Is an Intelligent Personality?

According to popular metaphors, the head and the heart respectively embody important features of one’s personality. People think of the head or brain as embodying one’s reason and intellect, while the heart is the seat of one’s emotions as well as caring and compassion. Furthermore, many people identify more strongly with either their head or their heart. So for example, a person might “know how to use their head” or “have a big heart." A series of studies on this topic shows that whether a person identifies more with their head or more with their heart actually can say a lot about their personality. People who identify with their head tend to be more intellectual yet interpersonally cold, while those who identify with their heart are more emotionally expressive and interpersonally warm. The authors of this paper also present evidence that people with a head identity are more knowledgeable than those who are in their hearts. This head/heart distinction might shed some light on why people tend to associate agreeable personality traits with less intelligence, something which I have discussed previously (here and here). The authors also raise the intriguing possibility that people might be easily influenced to pay more attention to either their head or their heart. This might mean that people who usually focus too much on either their head or their heart might be assisted to be more flexible as the need arises.

According to metaphor representation theory many common metaphors that people use in daily life are more than just figures of speech, they provide clues to how people actually think. An implication of this is that some metaphors about the self, such as being in one’s head or one’s heart might provide clues about how people understand their own personalities. This notion has been tested in a series of novel studies (Fetterman & Robinson, 2013). Participants were asked “which body part do you more closely associate with your self?” and asked to choose between the heart or the brain. For convenience those who chose the brain were referred to as ‘head-locators’ while those who chose the heart were called ‘heart-locators.’ As expected, heart-locators and head-locators differed on a number of personality features. Heart-locators described themselves as more emotionally intense, more intuitive, interpersonally warmer, and more interested in intimacy-related activities, while head-locators described themselves as more logical, more interpersonally cold, and more interested in intellectual activities. Heart-locators scored higher on the trait of agreeableness compared to head-locators, but the two groups did not differ on neuroticism, conscientiousness, or openness to experience. (For reasons not specified, differences in extraversion were not tested.) One result I found more striking was that head-locators seemed to actually perform better on intellectual measures. Participants were given a short test of general knowledge and asked to report their GPA scores from school and college respectively. Head-locators actually had somewhat better general knowledge and higher GPA scores compared to heart-locators. The authors suggested that more intelligent people might identify more with the head than their heart and that this might explain the results.

A heart as big as space? The Heart Nebula

In a previous post I discussed how lay people perceive the relationship between intelligence and personality traits. One of the issues I discussed was that people tend to associate personality traits related to agreeableness, especially trust, honesty and obedience, with being less intelligent, regardless of whether this is objectively true. In particular, people who rate themselves as being highly intelligent also tend to rate themselves as more introverted and disagreeable. These findings seem to parallel the results of Fetterman and Robinson’s paper that found that head-locators are more logical and interpersonally cold, while heart locators are more emotional, warm and agreeable. This might suggest that being in one’s heart might come at the expense of intellectual achievement or conversely that people who focus on their intellectual lives do so at the expense of emotional and interpersonal considerations. Perhaps then lay people associate agreeableness more with the heart and then tend to assume that highly agreeable people are less intellectually capable? Gender stereotypes might also be at work. Fetterman and Robinson found that heart-locators reported more psychologically “feminine” traits, and that they were also somewhat more likely to be women than men. Other research has found that people tend to think of intelligence generally as a stereotypically “masculine” trait (Petrides, Furnham, & Martin, 2004). People might therefore tend to think of agreeableness as a stereotypically feminine trait and therefore associate it with lower intelligence for that reason. However, in spite of these connotations, other research has found that agreeableness is actually unrelated to objective measures of intelligence (i.e. IQ score) or general knowledge. (See here and here respectively for further discussion and references.) On the other hand, it is possible that being highly agreeable could have disadvantages, such as being associated with behavior that some people might regard as less intelligent in the sense of not being completely in one’s own interests (which I discussed in this post). If Fetterman and Robinson’s findings that heart-locators are less knowledgeable and have lower GPAs compared to head-locators is generally true it might be due to other factors than high agreeableness. Different interests and motivations might explain differences in intellectual achievements independently of how agreeable a person is.

Mr Spock: Archetypal Head person - or stereotypical parody?

The findings discussed so far are correlational in nature and so do not address whether being in one’s heart or one’s head has a causal influence on the outcomes discussed so far. In order to test whether self-location can have a causal influence Fetterman and Robinson performed a clever experiment to subtly manipulate participants’ attention to either their head or their heart. Participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions in which they were instructed to either place their dominant index finger on their temple or on the left side of their upper chest. They were given a cover story that this was an experiment on how people answer questions when using either their dominant or non-dominant hands, and the words ‘head’ and ‘heart’ were carefully avoided so as not to give away the true purpose of the experiment. While maintaining this posture, they were then asked to answer a number of difficult general knowledge questions and then to respond to a series of moral dilemmas on a computer keyboard using their non-dominant hand. As predicted, head-pointers answered more general knowledge questions correctly, while heart-pointers responded to the moral dilemmas in a more emotional and less logical manner. The authors concluded from this that drawing attention to the head facilitates intellectual problem-solving, while drawing attention to the heart prompts people to give more weight to emotional rather than logical factors in decision making.

Fetterman and Robinson’s experiment is an example of what is known as behavioral priming, which generally involve manipulation of subtle behaviors or cues in the environment which are supposed to influence participants’ subsequent behavior in ways of which they are unaware. Behavioral priming experiments have generated a great deal of controversy in psychology in recent years due to frequent difficulties in replicating the results (Cesario, 2014). This does not mean that Fetterman and Robinson’s results should be disregarded without further investigation, only that it would be wise to treat the results with a degree of caution until they are replicated, preferably with a larger sample. I also have some reservations about the general knowledge tests they used (and this applies equally to their correlational study discussed earlier). Specifically, the tests used had few items (ten in the correlational study and eight in the experimental study) and were in a true or false format. Such a format allows participants to guess their answers, increasing the element of chance. A longer test in which participants have to provide the answers would allow a more reliable assessment of their performance.

Wisdom combines the logic of the head with the feelings of the heart

Bearing these cautions in mind, Fetterman and Robinson’s experiment has interesting implications. The authors note that each type of self-location has its respective strengths and weaknesses. Head-locators may be smarter and more rational in some respects but they also tend to be cold and therefore lacking social graces. Heart-locators are more agreeable and therefore generally more pleasant to be around, but they may tend to over-react emotionally to stress. If it is true that shifting attention to either the head or the heart can temporarily change one’s thinking and behavior, then this might assist people to be more flexible in the way they respond to the demands of everyday life. Personality psychology tends to focus on the ways in which a person’s characteristics remain stable over time. This could be taken to pessimistically imply that people are not able to change much. However, even though people seem to be fairly stable over the long term, in day-to-day life people do seem to have considerable capacity to act outside their usual inclinations when necessary. Hence, people need not feel that they are either stuck in their head or in their heart, they may be able to shift back and forth to an extent as the need arises.

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© Scott McGreal. Please do not reproduce without permission. Brief excerpts may be quoted as long as a link to the original article is provided.

Other posts discussing behavioural priming – these tend to be speculative but hopefully are thought-provoking

Opening the Mind: Where Skepticism and Superstition Meet

Reason versus Faith? The Interplay of Intuition and Rationality In Supernatural Belief

Think Like a Man: Effects of Gender Priming on Cognition

Turning the Wheels of the Mind - Clockwise movements increase openness to experience

Are Sex And Religion Natural Enemies?

Further food for thought

This video talk on "The Straw Vulcan" by Julia Galef discusses popular stereotypes of rationalists as people out of touch with their emotions. Star Trek fans might enjoy the discussion of the character Spock as an embodiment of this stereotype.

image credits

Heart Nebula - Wikimedia Commons

Spock - cropped from image at Wikimedia Commons

Wise mind diagram - Wikimedia Commons


Cesario, J. (2014). Priming, Replication, and the Hardest Science. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 9(1), 40-48. doi: 10.1177/1745691613513470

Fetterman, A. K., & Robinson, M. D. (2013). Do you use your head or follow your heart? Self-location predicts personality, emotion, decision making, and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 105(2), 316-334. doi: 10.1037/a0033374

Petrides, K. V., Furnham, A., & Martin, G. N. (2004). Estimates of Emotional and Psychometric Intelligence: Evidence for Gender-Based Stereotypes. The Journal of Social Psychology, 144(2), 149-162. doi: 10.3200/socp.144.2.149-162