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Write poems, get lucky

November 30, 2005 By Tom Simonite This article courtesy of Nature News.

They may be badly paid, but artists have more sexual success.

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Creative people have more sexual partners than the rest of us, say a pair of psychologists. They surveyed a hundred or so artists and poets, and claim that traits similar to those of schizophrenics explain these people's success with members of the opposite sex.

Artists and schizophrenics are known to share characteristics, and they pose a certain kind of puzzle to evolutionary psychologists. Neither artistic talent nor schizophrenia offers an obvious reproductive benefit, nor are they expected to, but does their existence suggest they might have one?

British researchers Daniel Nettle, of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, and Helen Keenoo, at the Open University in Milton Keynes, decided to investigate by surveying 425 professional visual artists and poets, amateurs and regular people. They found that active artists had had an average of five or six sexual partners; those without artistic ambitions had had nearer four.

Just like it's hard to have a huge, fantastic, peacock's tail, it's not easy to be a successful artist. But it can help you reproduce and pass on your genes.
Daniel Nettle
Newcastle University, UK
"I think it's to do with attention," says Nettle of artists' sexual success. "Art forms are things that hold people's attention, and that can be a powerful aphrodisiac."

Weak links

The survey also measured psychological characteristics associated with schizophrenia. The results showed that possession of one trait, the tendency to unusual interpretations, was associated with artistic activity, which in turn was linked with more partners.

Critics point out that this schizophrenic trait is not directly linked to increased partners. And although an unconventional attitude to social rules, another schizophrenic trait, was directly associated with increased sexual partners, it was not linked to artistic tendencies.

Charles Crawford, an evolutionary psychologist at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, Canada, applauds the study for trying to put numbers on the suspicion that creativity has an evolutionary role. But he is surprised that male artists do not enjoy more success than their female fellow creatives.

"Because of the demands of pregnancy, having more partners doesn't really help women have more children," Crawford says, "but for men it really does." So one would be pushed to use the findings to defend a link between creativity and reproductive success, rather than just creativity and number of partners.

Balanced view

Nettle's suggestion is that creative works are like the displays that animals have evolved to attract mates. "They function as indicators of quality because they are hard to maintain," he claims. "Just like it's hard to have a huge, fantastic peacock's tail, it's not easy to be a successful artist. But it can help you reproduce and pass on your genes."

Even if some schizophrenic traits are linked to sexual success, others include being socially withdrawn and lacking interest in one's surroundings, and these reduce mate numbers. So Nettle suggests that mental characters associated with schizophrenia and creativity are retained in the population as a result of an evolutionary balancing act.

"We've shown that some of them can increase numbers of sexual partners, so you would expect them to get more frequent," he claims. "But in others they manifest as mental illness."

Of course, the assumption that correlations between schizophrenic traits, creativity and mate number indicate a causal relationship between them might well be questioned.

Crawford says it's an interesting and provocative pilot study. But, he adds, "before I believe it, I want to see bigger samples and a focus on sex differences."

Nettle agrees and says that he plans to investigate the social side of artists' sexual success as well. "This kind of work can't offer tips on how to get more sexual partners," he says, "but I would like to look at how artists manage it. My gut feeling is that they are given a licence that other people don't receive."


  1. Nettle D. & Keenoo H. et al. Proc Royal Soc B, doi:10.1098/rspb.2005.3349 (2005).


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