During mating season, male bowerbirds make elaborate ground-level structures out of sticks, moss and leaves, then decorate these bowers with colorful flowers, stones and shells. They sometimes even “paint” them with berries.

When the time comes, the females choose to mate with the males that have built the biggest, most symmetric and best decorated nests.

While male bowerbirds’ creative displays have a clear function, the purpose of human creativity is not as well understood. Some scientists theorize that problem solving, which is one facet of creativity, confers a survival advantage and probably evolved via natural selection.

But a new study by Arizona State University researchers provides evidence that creativity could also be the result of a complementary process known as sexual selection.

According to sexual selection, traits attractive in a mate will become more common over time, as the individual animals that display those traits pass on their genes more often than animals that don’t. Sexual selection can lead to traits that don’t have a direct survival advantage but serve to advertise the fitness of their bearer’s genes.

“Creativity might be this kind of response that is designed not just to enhance our reproductive potential by making us better problem solvers but by making us more attractive to prospective mates,” said Robert Cialdini, an author of the study, published in the July issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

To test that idea, Cialdini, along with colleagues Vladas Griskevicius and Douglas Kenrick, recruited 615 subjects and provided them with various romantic prompts. Some subjects were shown pictures of attractive members of the opposite sex while others were asked to imagine certain romantic scenarios such as envisioning meeting a romantic interest on the final day of a vacation or being with a long-term partner, who was sometimes described as being loyal and committed. After each of these prompts, subjects were asked to perform tasks used to asses their creativity, such as writing descriptions of uncaptioned cartoons, interpreting abstract pictures and taking a standardized creativity test.

The men became more creative whether they were looking at photos, imagining short-term liaisons or envisioning a long-term partner. The women, however, showed substantial increases in creativity only when they imagined devoted long-term partners.

“Men become lures through creativity at the drop of a hat at the possibility of a romantic liason,” Cialdini said. “Women reserve that lure for the kind of partner who is likely to be a good match for her and a long-term committed relationship member.”

In most animal species, males display sexually selected traits while females select for them—the classic example being the brightly colored tail of the peacock, which is displayed only by males. This sort of female-mandated selection is most commonly seen in species where mothers contribute much more to their offspring than fathers do.

“Women need to be more selective about the mates that they accept,” Cialdini said. “They have to invest much more in the consequences of any act of conception than men do.”

Martie Haselton, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, said the study’s findings about the relationship between romance and creativity—and about males’ disproportionate display of romance-inspired creativity—provide a significant boost to the sexual selection theory of creativity.

“This is some of the strongest evidence for that I’ve seen,” she said.

The theory may also help explain the relationship between artists and their muses.

“That’s something that had always intrigued me,” Cialdini said. “It seemed like muses were invariably women, and the artists were invariably men. What’s that all about?”

Cialdini’s finding that an image of an attractive member of the opposite sex is likely to inspire heightened creativity in men and not women may explain the discrepancy, though he notes that muses aren’t exclusive to male artists: Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning found inspiration in her husband, fellow poet Robert Browning.

Though both male and female artists can have muses, the inspirer’s characteristics tend to be different, Cialdini said.

“A committed, highly valued partner will spur women to heights of creativity,” he said. “For men, they tend to be mistresses.”

Originally published August 17, 2006

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