Creativity Makes You Seem More Attractive

… but it seems to work better if you’re a man.

A woman walks by Rene Magritte's "The Lovers" at Madrid's Thyssen-Bornemisza museum  (Susana Vera / Reuters)

Dos Equis’s most Interesting Man in the World ran a marathon just because it was on his way, is both left- and right-handed, and is fluent in all the world’s languages, including three that he alone speaks. The character was, until recently, played by a 70-something, little-known actor named Jonathan Goldsmith, whose earlier claim to fame was selling waterless car-wash products. And yet he—or at least his persona—was undeniably enticing.

According to a new paper published in Royal Society Open Science, the appeal of average-looking Interesting Men, both real and fictional, might be all in their interestingness.

First, the participants were shown images like these:

Examples of the attractive (far left) and less-attractive female faces and the attractive (left) and less-attractive male (far right) used by the researchers (Royal Society)

Each image was paired with a short story based on the painting The Lovers by René Magritte. The stories were written such that they were either creative—“even if you are in a relationship with someone, perhaps you don’t know how this person really is”—or unoriginal—“It seems they have white cloth/pillowcases over their heads to blind them from their environment.” The participants were told the people in the photos wrote the stories, and then asked to judge how attractive they were.

Though the subjects always thought the physically more handsome men were more attractive, the more creative men seemed more attractive than the uncreative ones. But creativity did nothing to enhance the women’s attractiveness in the subjects’ eyes.

Next, a new group of study participants were shown similar photos alongside descriptions of things to do with a car tire—some of which were creative (making a Loch Ness Monster sculpture) and some of which weren’t (using it as a seat.) With the explanation that the people in the photos came up with the tire uses, participants were told to rate their attractiveness.

Again, creativity made the average-looking men, but not women, appear more seductive. The results showed creativity was more of a boon to the men with less-attractive faces.

Across the study’s three trials, just one showed any attractiveness benefit of creativity in women.

To Christopher Watkins, a professor of psychology at Scotland’s Abertay University and the author of the study, the results show that creativity can help boost the romantic and social prospects of average-looking men. Creativity, Watkins says, is a proxy for intelligence, and it signals the ability of your potential future mate or friend to solve tricky problems.

Huzzah! All hail the dorm-room bard and his sub-optimal bone structure. Unfortunately, as with most things in life, the picture looks significantly worse for women.

In the first two studies, a high creativity rating made the less-attractive women seem even uglier, and “less-creative but attractive women were preferred relative to creative but less-attractive women.” In other words, if you’re female, the only thing men care about you sculpting are your eyebrows.

Here’s a depressing little graph showing those results, for the female faces:

(Royal Society)

Along with two very depressing sentences:

For women, two of the three experiments demonstrated that facial attractiveness enhanced their overall attractiveness to a greater extent than creativity (written expression and creative thinking) enhanced their overall attractiveness. Indeed, across these experiments, creativity weakened the appeal of women with less attractive faces and did not benefit their attractiveness when displayed by women with attractive faces.

This isn’t the only study to show that cerebral traits like humor and intelligence actually lower women’s appeal to men. A paper published in 2015 found that while men liked the idea of women who are smarter than they are, they actually were less attracted to them. Other studies have shown that when men are funny, women find them more desirable. When women are funny, men like them less.

So, I asked Watkins, does creativity work for women? Could adopting some artsy quirks or “deep” affectations help our chances, too?

To Watkins, the fact that the third trial contradicted the first two helped him come to the “general conclusion” that creativity enhances all peoples’ attractiveness, “especially if they do not have an especially attractive face.” Though, as he writes in the study, further research is needed to firm up the gender effects.

Liana Hone, a gender and psychology researcher at the University of Missouri, was more hesitant to brush aside the first two sets of findings. But, ultimately, she said, “even in three studies, you can’t make a conclusion one way or the the other.”

Hone’s main takeaway from the study? People make trade-offs when they’re choosing romantic partners. If the hot guy is taken, your eye might wander toward his scruffier friend who also happens to write sci-fi thrillers.

Whether that same trick works for women is still an open question. Though it still might be worth it for us to teach a German shepherd how to bark in Spanish, even if it doesn’t get us a date.