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Love, Lust, and Creativity

Which boosts creativity--love or lust?

Love and creativity are intimately connected. Many lovers have expressed their love and talent through creative display, sometimes to embarassing results! But what about lust? Does lust drive someone to the same heights of creativity?

While acknowledging that love and lust can come together in the same person, Jens Forster and his colleagues argue in a recent in press article that at times the two can come apart. Indeed, the psychologists Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Hatfield once remarked how love and sex are like "kissing cousins"--both are linked in people's minds and brains but are not the same and can produce independent psychological effects. According to Forster and colleagues, "love and lust lead to two different ways of perceiving the world".

Forster and his colleagues see romantic love as having to do with dreamy wishes and long-term goals of attachment. They see lust having to do more with the "here and now" and the desire to engage in sexual activity. Based on this view, they predicted that love's focus on the long-term would enhance holistic thinking and creative thought, whereas lust's focus on the present would enhance analytical thought.

In a first study, they had people either imagine a long walk with their beloved partner (or ideal partner if they were single) while trying to experience their love for this person, or imagine a situation involving casual sex with a person they were attracted to but not in love with. In a control condition, participants imagined a nice walk on their own. Then, participants attempted to solved creative insight problems as well as four analytical logical thinking problems taken straight from the GRE.

They found that those primed with thoughts of love had the highest levels of creative insights (those primed with lust had the lowest), whereas those primed with thoughts of lust had the highest levels of analytical thinking (those primed with love had the lowest).

To see how unconscious these effects can be, the researchers ran a second study where they unconsciously primed either love or lust by flashing words associated with love ("love", "loving", "to love") or lust ("sex", "eroticism", "sexuality") on the screen at at a very fast rate. Words were flashed on the screen at unpredictable places and times and participants were told to indicate as quickly and accurately as possible whether the flash appeared on the right or the left side of the screen by pressing the appropriate key. They used the same analytical task as in the first study, but since there are multiple ways to measure creativity, they used a different creativity task in this study to see how generalizable the results were from the first study (they gave participants 2 minutes to generate as many uses for a brick as they could that were neither typical nor virtually impossible). They then had two independent raters rate the creativity of the responses.

Again, they found the highest creative solutions scores when participants were primed with love (lowest when primed with lust) and the best performance on the analytical thinking problems when participants were primed with lust (lowest with primed with love).

Conclusion by the researchers: "Love enhances global processing and creative thinking whereas sex enhances local processing and analytic thinking. Thus, contrary to the intuitive notion of creativity and analytical thought as fixed human capacities or stable personality traits, they can easily be changed by subtle cues in the environment or by mere thinking about certain situations."

Fascinating results, especially in light of other recent research on the topic. In a recent study Johan C. Karremans and colleagues (see Interacting with women makes men stupid) found that when men are chatting with a female who is a stranger, their cognitive ability takes a nose dive. Not better, but worse.

Perhaps the difference between the two studies is that in Griskevicius's study, participants are actually interacting with other people and in the Forster et al. study they are just imagining the interaction (or are primed about it). So perhaps actual interactions can cause anxiety and intimidation and it is these feelings that are causing a decline in cognitive performance. So to reconcile the two: Thinking about the experience of sex or receiving a cue that relates to sex can increase a person's analytical skills because you are in a "here and now" focused mindset, whereas thinking about sex with a stranger in the presence of that stranger can cause one's mind to become scattered and that person then can lose all sense of who they are, what they are doing there, and even what their name is (which, I have argued, is actually just the conditions necessary for divergent, creative thought!).

In another related study, Vladas Griskevicius and colleagues (see: For the love of the Muse) showed that it doesn't matter if men are thinking about a short-term or long-term affair--in either case their creativity was increased. For women, however, their creativity was only increased in the condition where they were imagining an affair with a long-term, committed mate. This sex difference is in line with evolutionary theorizing on parental investment. Since women have more to risk, biologically speaking, from having a short-term affair than men do, women should require more assurance of commitment before wanting to invest in creative displays.

Forster and colleagues compare their study to Griskevicius et. al.'s:

"In Griskevicius et al.'s studies, the scenarios left more room for imaginations confounding sex and love than our instructions. To illustrate, in their studies, the sexual (short-term) scenario handed out to participants ended with two protagonists passionately kissing at a moonlit beach. It is possible that some people simply did not imagine sex. It is also possible that some participants thought about sex but in addition imagined a possible future that went beyond a one-night stand."

This could explain the difference between the studies. But I have to ask: Is there that big a difference between kissing and sexual intercourse in terms of activating the lust drive? Even if participants imagined passionately kissing on a moonlit beach but didn't actually imagine sexual intercourse, couldn't this equally turn on the lust drive, especially considering the instructions clearly indicated that they were to imagine a short-term fling?

Also, sex differences are most certainly involved here. Sex differences had a huge effect in the Griskevicius et al. study, so why wouldn't they in the Forster study? Unfortunately, Foster and colleagues don't break down any of their analyses by gender. This could have been an informative analysis.

Lastly, from a strictly common-sense perspective, I would have thought that the experience of sex (either actually having it, thinking about it consciously, or being subconsciously primed about it) causes a person to deactivate, not activate, the seats of higher cognition in the brain and therefore the blood would flow elsewhere. I understand the researcher's logic when they say: "when experiencing sexual encounters, they [people] focus on the present and on concrete details enhancing analytic thinking." And to the credit of the researchers, they did find support for their prediction: when their participants were primed to think about sex in their controlled laboratory setting they showed enhanced test performance on items relating to analytical, logical thinking. And I am pleased to see research on this topic and hope this spurs more research along similar lines that attempts to replicate existing studies and to move the field in new, exciting directions.

But I'm just having difficulty buying the idea that in the real world, the experience of a short-term fling puts one in the sort of mindset that can actually improve performance on the analytical, logic section of the GRE's. Perhaps the researchers are right. Their data certainly is provocative, and opens up avenues for future research. I just think we need more research on this topic before people start having sex right before they sit the GRE's.

© 2009 Scott Barry Kaufman, All Rights Reserved


Forster, J., Epstude, Kai, & Ozelsel, A. (in press). Why love has wings and sex has not: How reminders of love and sex influence creative and analytic thinking. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

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