For the Love of the Muse
How the mating motive can spark creativity
Posted June 10, 2009
"O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention."--Shakespeare
I once witnessed something truly remarkable at the gym. From my vantage point on the treadmill I could see a row of my fellow men attempting to bench press, most of them with great effort. As a girl walked past, I could hardly believe my eyes; what I saw looked like an audience wave at a Baseball game. Every guy the girl passed suddenly sucked in his gut, ferociously pumped faster, and increased his repetitions at a very fast rate. When the girl (who I suspect noticed this phenomenon) was completely out of sight, all the men went back to their earlier behaviors, once again grunting and contorting their facial expressions. Just yesterday, I observed the same phenomenon in the gym. Some guy was jumping around on the mat like a Mexican jumping bean when a girl was on the mat next to him. I don't even think she noticed.
So does creativity operate like my weight lifting example? It would certainly seem so from a cursory look at history. It has long been known that the mating motive can be a remarkably potent creative force. Many wildly creative individuals report being inspired by a Muse. Pablo Picasso was so struck by the 17-year-old Sylvette David at first sight (Sylvette is an artist in her own rite) at his painter's studio in Provence that she became the model for many of his paintings. (Picasso would have many other Muses during the course of his artistic career).
The list continues. Hester Thrale inspired Samuel Johnson, Yoko Ono inspired John Lennon, and Woody Allen has had a number of Muses over the span of his career including Mia Farrow, Diane Keaton, and Scarlett Johansson (although both Woody and Johansson deny that she is his Muse; see here for a full list of Woody's Muses). Some Muses have even inspired multiple men: Lou Andreas-Salomé inspired Friedrich Nietzsche, Rainer Maria Rilke and Sigmund Freud! This is only a small sampling of examples. I suggest reading historian Francine Prose's fascinating book The Lives of the Muses: Nine Women & the Artists they Inspired for more examples and insight.
These case studies certainly are revealing. But these examples are clearly of individuals superior in creative thinking. What about the rest of us? In a series of really clever experiments, Vladas Griskevicius and his colleagues sought out to empirically investigate the effect of the mating motive on creativity using a sample of college students.
To establish a baseline level of creativity, participants wrote a short story about what they think was going on with ambiguous cartoon and abstract images. Then they were asked to chose the most desirable romantic partner from a series of photos taken from Match.com. With their selected picture on the computer screen in view, the researchers primed the mating motive by asking the participant to imagine going on a first date with the person in the photo and to write a story about their idea of the perfect date with that person. The researchers then had the stories rated by a panel of judges. There also was a control condition that didn't activate the mating motive--participants looked at photos of a street with several buildings and imagined being on that street (a mental image that does not activate the mating motive in most humans) and wrote stories about what they thought were the most pleasant weather conditions to walk around and look at the buildings.
They found that the men's stories tended to be more creative in the mating motive condition than the control condition. Women, on the other hand, did not show the same effect--the creativity of their stories was just as creative in both the control and mating primed conditions. In fact, the mating motive had strong effects on men in all of their studies--even when they used a more objective (there was only one correct answer) measure of creativity assessing the ability to form remote associations. These effects weren't related to increased effort on the creativity tasks or to changes in mood or arousal. The mating motive was also a more powerful incentive for increased creativity than a condition in which there was just monetary incentive!
This research suggests that the romantic motive really can enhance creativity. And the mating motive can exert its effects even when the person knows they aren't going to actually have a date with the person. All that seems necessary is that the mating motivation is activated.
Creative but stupid?
In my last post (Interacting with women makes men stupid), I reported a recent study that found that interactions with women can impair the cognitive functioning of men. How can we reconcile the findings of these two studies? How is it possible that the mating motive simultaneously impairs cognitive functioning and increases creativity?
Griskevicius and his colleagues offer a hint to this answer. In trying to explain why creativity isn't always turned on in men once the mating motive is active (since it appears to confer significant reproductive benefits), they offer the possibility that "there are costs associated with allocating one's energies to permanent creative displays, such as decreased capacity to attend to other matters or decreased functioning of short-term memory."
Against this backdrop, I propose a hypothesis. We know in the study described in my last post that interacting with women can (at least temporarily) decrease the ability to update working memory and switch between tasks. But note that that study also found a decrease in the ability to inhibit stimuli. I would argue that a temporary decrease in the ability to inhibit stimuli is precisely what is needed for increased creativity.
The great creativity researcher Colin Martindale has long argued for the importance of disinhibition for creativity. Perhaps the mating motive causes a shift in frame of mind--from convergent thinking and controlled attention to a more diffuse and divergent mode of thought. The mating motive would therefore cause the brain to scatter, which would be conducive to creative thought. It seems to me that it is precisely this quality of divergent thinking that would be sexually selected over the course of evolution, since it is a divergent mode of thought that enhances the odds of creative thinking and thereby increases the chances that one will stand out among his or her mating competitors.
Of course, this is just a cheeky hypothesis. My idea could be tested though by running an experiment where changes in a wide range of cognitive functions (memory, divergent thinking, etc.) are assessed both before and after the mating motive is active.
Why Are So Many Muses Women?
Many readers are probably wondering (rightly so) why there seems to be such a focus here on men being inspired by women. Indeed, Francine Prose notes in her book that all of the Muses in history and mythology are female. (In Greek mythology, nine godly muses--all women-- travelled the land, inspiring the creativity of mortal artists and scientists). Certainly, in the words of Prose, "there is no biological reason why a man can't provide the elements of inspiration." This is a very good point, and I'm sure there have been many real life cases of Muses who are men (and cases of men inspiring men and women inspiring women).
But why in both studies I reported (in this post and the last one) did the mating motive have a more powerful effect on men than women? Why are women in these studies so unaffected by the mating motive? There are many potential reasons for this (I'd really appreciate hearing your own thoughts on why this may be the case, so please comment!), but Griskevicius's study offers some insight into this puzzle.
To dig deeper into this question, the researchers introduced additional conditions, varying the level of commitment of the potential romantic partner in the imagined romantic scenarios. They found that while men increased their creativity in every single condition, only women increased their creative output in one specific condition--after imagining wanting to attract a clearly trustworthy and committed long-term mate. Women did not show a creative increase when primed to think about attracting a shorter-term mate or a potential long-term mate who had yet to prove his worth as good relationship material.
These results suggest that women do indeed respond to the mating motive, but just require a bit more assurance that the partner is a good partner before they invest in creativity. The researchers describe these findings within the context of differential parental investment. When pursuing a short-term mating strategy, women tend to be more guarded than men since they have a lot more at stake reproductively speaking (women risk getting pregnant, whereas men don't have this risk). But when pursuing a long-term mate, both men and women are a lot more similar than different in their mating goals and preferences--both expect to invest significantly in the offspring and therefore want a partner that shows signs of dependability. According to the researchers, "In this light, it makes some sense that women require assurance that a prospective mate is really going to invest in offspring before investing the energy in creative displays." So according to this logic, there are more female Muses than male Muses simply because it is easier and faster to turn on a male's mating motive.
Not to say that male Muses don't exist. Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote her greatest work, Sonnets from the Portuguese, in the throes of a relationship with a committed fan, the poet Robert Browning. And I'm sure that in many committed relationships, both individuals continuously inspire each other, and bring out the best in each other, creatively, spiritually, and emotionally, in a reciprocal fashion. You just don't read about those instances much in the news.
Whatever the ultimate explanation for the fascinating results by Griskevicius and his colleagues, the findings are certainly thought provoking. Personally, I now finally have a deeper understanding of why I tend to spontaneously break out into rock Opera whenever a girl passes by me.
© 2009 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved
Griskevicius, V., Cialdini, R.B., & Kenrick, D.T. (2006). Picasso, and parental investment: The effects of romantic motives on creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 91, 63-76.
Prose, F. (2002). The lives of the muses: Nine women and the artists they inspired. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers.
Note: The title for this post is taken from my presentation (with Melanie Bromley and James C. Kaufman) of the same name (but different content) at the Human Behavior and Evolution Society Conference in 2006.
p.s.: Happy Birthday Mom!