It's no secret: creativity is sexy. People all over the world rank creativity as a highly desirable quality in a partner, and people who are creative across a variety of fields report more sexual partners (similar results have been found in specific fields such as visual art, music, and humor).

But are all forms of creativity equally attractive?

According to evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, creative displays in humans are analogous to the peacock's tail: they serve the function of attracting mates by serving as indicators of mental fitness (cognitive functioning and personality).

Extending this argument, personality psychologist Gregory Feist made a key distinction between applied/technological displays of creativity (seen in modern domains of technology, science, and engineering), and ornamental/aesthetic displays of creativity (seen in modern domains of art, music, and other aesthetic domains). According to Feist, ornamental/aesthetic forms of creativity-- which play on our evolved perceptual functions and evoke strong emotions in the perceiver-- were shaped primarily by sexual selection pressures and are therefore more likely to receive a sexual response than applied/technological forms of creativity.

Such displays are also more likely to be passed on to future generations and become part of the cultural record. As Daniel Nettle points out in his terrific book Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature:

"You remember Beethoven and Brahms, but can you name a single innovator in the field of sewer construction and sewage treatment?"

You probably can't, even though the latter has probably saved more lives than the former. After all, why is it that American Idol finalists get a townwide parade in their home towns, whereas PhD candidates in psychology, for instance, get a parade attended only by their parents and grandparents?

But hold up, you say. To each his or her own. What is one man's trash is another man's treasure, right?

Well, maybe. These are the sort of questions that motivated a study I conducted with Gregory Feist and my colleagues Aaron Kozbelt, Paul Silvia, James Kaufman, and Sheela Ramesh, and which we report in a new paper called Who Finds Bill Gates Sexy? Creative Mate Preferences as Function of Cognitive Ability, Personality, and Creative Achievement.

First we created the "Creative Behavior Mating Preferences Checklist", in which people are asked to rank 43 creative behaviors according to how much they find each behavior "sexually attractive in a potential mate." Then we investigated the best cognitive, personality, and creative achievement predictors of the various items on the scale.

For all the nuance, I highly recommend downloading the paper. But here are a few highlights:

  • For both males and females on average, ornamental/aesthetic forms of creativity were considered more sexually attractive than applied/technological forms of creativity. These findings are consistent with Feist's theory about human creative mate preferences at a species-typical level.

On average, here are the top 10 sexiest creative behaviors:

1. Playing sports

2. Taking a date on a spontaneous road trip

3. Recording music

4. Making a clever remark

5. Writing music

6. Performing in a band

7. The taking of artistic photographs

8. Performing in comedy

9. Dressing in a unique style

10. Writing poetry

On average, here are the top 10 least sexy creative behaviors:

1. Making ad campaigns

2. Interior decorating

3. Writing an original computer program

4. Making websites

5. Growing and gardening

6. Presenting scientific or mathematical papers

7. Exterior decorating

8. Applying math in an original way to solve a practical problem

9. The development of scientific experimental designs

10. Participating in drama production

  • BUT... We also found substantial differences in reported mate preferences among people, and these differences could be predicted based on personality. People who scored higher in intellectual curiosity, enjoyment of cognitively complex reasoning, and who reported more creative achievements in the sciences tended to find applied/technological forms of creativity incredibly sexy in a potential partner. In contrast, the best predictor of a preference for ornamental/aesthetic forms of creativity among both males and females was openness to experience: a preference for engagement with sensory, aesthetic, fantasy, and emotional information. Interestingly, among males, higher levels of intellectual curiosity actually were associated with less of a preference for ornamental/aesthetic displays of creativity in a potential mate. Not sure what to make of that finding though.

Taken together, these results suggest that even though creative displays that evoke perceptual, aesthetic, and emotional qualities in the perceiver are considered most sexually attractive by most humans, assortative mating ("like attracts likes") very much operates within the creativity domain. So for all those out there who get turned on by creative behaviors such as "Writing an original computer program", or "Presenting scientific or mathematical papers at a conference", know that you aren't alone, and there's some programmer out there who will find your own creative behaviors intoxicatingly attractive!

© 2014 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved

photo credit: istockphoto