• If you are citizen of an European Union member nation, you may not use this service unless you are at least 16 years old.

  • You already know Dokkio is an AI-powered assistant to organize & manage your digital files & messages. Very soon, Dokkio will support Outlook as well as One Drive. Check it out today!


Supernormal Stimuli

Page history last edited by Stan James 13 years, 7 months ago

Supernormal Stimuli : How primal urges overran their evolutionary purpose

Book by Deirdre Barrett

W. W. Norton & Company, 2010


This is a book about cases where an organism's response, as shaped by evolution, goes awry. The classic example, which Barrett begins with, is that of a Cuckoo bird. This bird lays its egg in the nest of another bird, and exploits the fact that the other bird will care for it as its own. In this book, she introduces us to the phenomena and the scientists who studied it, and then examines various supernormal stimuli in our human world.


The book is informative, although the prose is not too fluid. It reads as if it were an academic work ruthlessly edited and re-cast as popular science. At points, you can almost hear the editor's voice speaking to the author, "Hey, put a personal anecdote in here! Put something personal about the scientist there!"


What are Supernormal Stimuli?

Introduce the concept of supernormal stimuli and outline where book is going.


Making the Ordinary Seem Strange

The story of Niko Tinbergen, the scientist who first studied supernormal stimuli. Some early research was on stickleback fish, especially the behaviors of males who seemed to cue off a limited set of physical traits.

"Sticklebacks didn’t attack a realistically shaped model if its belly wasn’t red, but violently pursued very unfishlike shapes with red undersides. Males in aquariums by the window went into attack mode when a red postal van drove by. Color wasn’t the only determinant for detecting females; males escorted carved wooden models to the nest if they had the curved velly of an egg-bearing female. They preferred the model with the roundest stomach."


Tinbergen, along with Konrad Lorenz, discovered the widely known phenomena of "imprinting" in birds. If you are in front of baby gosling in the first hours of it's early life, it will follow you throughout its youth. Of course, this is usually the mother goose, but evolution gave the birds only the rule of thumb.


The chapter also tells the story of Niko's life, including time in a prison while the Nazis were in power. Both he and his brother were awarded Nobel prizes, but in general their family was quite dysfunctional. One friend said, "The Tinbergen's are just like that, very bottled up."


Barrett concludes the chapter with an explanation of evolutionary psychology, preparing the shift in focus from animals to humans.


Sex for Dummies


  • It's no surprise that pornography is a stellar example of supernormal stimuli. The "super" part is made clear by this quoted exchange from God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, by Kurt Vonnegut.

… Harry [a fisherman] scowled at a picture of a French girl in a bikini.
Fred, understanding that he seemed a bleak, sexless person to Harry, tried to prove that Harry had him wrong. He nudged Harry, man-to-man.
“Like that, Harry?” he asked.
“Like what?”
“The girl there.”
“That’s not a girl. That’s a piece of paper.”
“Looks like a girl to me,” Fred leered.
“Then you’re easily fooled,” said Harry. “It’s done with ink on a piece of paper. That girl isn’t lying there on the counter. She’s thousands of miles away, doesn’t even know we’re alive. If this was a real girl, all I’d have to do for a living would be to stay home and cut out pictures of big fish.” 

  • Pornography and masturbation are are not harmful. The Internet's surplus of free porn, however, may be leading to more cases of addiction than in past times.
  • Virtual Reality has failed to deliver sex simulations that are preferable over the real thing.

What is attractive?

  • Selection bias: media enables us to see the prettiest few young women, chosen from millions around the world. In stone age tribe, no woman was that much prettier than any other.
  • Preferred body proportions are same across cultures.
  • Some traits have receded in emphasis. E.g. In the time of smallpox and others, "unblemished skin" used to be more used to describe beauty than "slender"
  • Cosmetics as supernormal stimuli, with plastic surgery as (possibly dangerous) progression of this

 Porn for Women - Romance novels

  • "Heroes are tall; six-foot-two is the most common specific and "over six feet" a popular generalization. Adjectives used to describe Mr. Rights appearance were, in descending order of frequency: muscular, handsome, strong, large, tanned, masculine, and energetic. Personality descriptors were: bold, calm, confident, and intelligent."
  • Effect of media, crushes on celebrities: "Most women easily identify with these crush stories . . . It seems a normal part of growing up. . . However, just a few generations ago, being in love with someone you’d never met, who lived thousands of miles away, or who’d died before you were born wasn’t normal--it wasn’t even possible: no media existed to support such fantasies. Crush responses were limited to people around you"
  • "Only 3 percent [in 1934] had crushes on 'entertainers'--this category wasn’t much higher than the number who fancied monks.  . . . But in 1934, film was at low resolution and infrequently viewed, and there were no posters of stars to be plastered on adolescents’ walls."

What is Natural?

  • The recent loosening of sexual mores marks a return to our evolutionary past. Farming, a recent invention, forced unnatural changes in behavior. 'Divorce became much harder in an agricultural society. “Whoever elected to leave the marriage left empty-handed,” obverves anthropologist Helen Fischer. “Neither spouse could dig up half the wheat and relocate.”'

Clues from Animal Relatives

  • Basic re-hash of "Are humans naturally monogamous?" arguments. Comparisons with other primates.

Sex in the City

  • "Someone living in Manhattan or Tokyo may walk past more attractive possible mates in one city block than their ancestors saw in a lifetime of wandering the savannah. The total number of partners for the most sexually active moderns obviously exceed any in prehistoric times. This translates into higher rates of everything from jealousy to venereal diseases."


Too Cute

  • Cuteness like pornography, we know it when we see it.

  • "Anyone disheartened by research demonstrating that attractive adults are better liked and better paid than their homelier peers will be further dismayed at studies on infant cuteness. Articles such as “The Infant’s Physical Attractiveness: Its Effect on Bonding and Attachment” document that stereotypically cute babies receive the most attention from both strangers and their own parents. They run less risk of abuse or neglect. Cute children proceed to get better treatment from teachers."
  • Animals do it too: Story of leopard who ate mama baboon, then "cared" for orphaned baby baboon, protected it from hyenas.
  • Stories of human children raised by animals 

Neoteny: the preservation of infantile characteristics into adulthood

  • Changes in animals when domesticated, e.g. floppy ears.
  • Trofim Lysenko's domesticated foxes. Was able to make domestic, human-friendly foxes in only 50 years. (Compared to thousands of years for dogs.)

Human Neoteny

  • "Our whole species may also especially adorable compared to our primate relatives." 
  • Have we domesticated ourselves? 
  • Similarity of human physiology to infant primates

Cuteness and consumer

  • Evolution of Mickey Mouse's appearance and actions into super-infantile mouse.
    • 'Walt Disney is said to have pinned a note over each of his animator’s desks: “Keep it cute!” His staff not only kept it cute, they made it cuter and cuter. As Stephen Jay Gould has pointed out in his essay “A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse,” Disney’s star character became more juvenile in appearance as the years passed. His eyes grew larger, his jaw shrank, and the dome of his head ballooned. Mickey’s arms, legs, and snout thickened, his legs jointed, and his ears moved back. By the time the cutification was complete, the adult Mickey looked no older than his little nephew Marty had at the start of the series.'
  • "Very young children are the only beings immune to cuteness. What good would it do a baby to attach to other babies? It is clearly in the babies’ interests to attach to adults."
  • "To date, the adverse effects of hijacking the the nurturing instinct are subtler. We seem to have enough responses to cuteness to burn."



Foraging in the Food Courts

  • NOTE: Berret's previous books have been extensively about eating, e.g. "Waistlant" so this chapter is over-developed and, IMO, gets very preachy. It's an abrupt shift from the otherwise scientific tone of the book.
  • Basic facts: Americans and the world have become very fat.

"Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race"

  • Jared Diamond's essay pointing out how human health has declined since the invention of farming.(Available here)
  • The grains of farming are not "natural" foods. People now eat fewer than 20 species of plants
  • "In the last four decades, the fast-food industry has perfected the supernormal stimulus."

McHunters and McGatherers

  • Junk food kills. "Supersize Me" movie
  • NOTE: This chapter is high on alarm, but low on scientific facts. Given the book's title, I expected more science about why the foods work as they do.
  • "There is growing evidence that sugary foods influence the same brain chemicals affected by addictive drugs."
  • "Biologists find that overeating refined fatty meals triggers similar physiological changes. Leptin and ghrelin are hormones that signal the body to begin and cease eating. After just a few extremely high-fat meals, rats lose their response to these cues and continue to eat excessively."
  • Pedagogic tone again: "Unlike the complex paths our nurturing, sexual, and romantic instincts have taken, the hijacking of our drive for nourishment clearly needs to be reined back right now toward something more like what our ancestors practiced."
  • Lots and lots of pages about how you can lose weight: habits, psychotherapy, hypnosis.
  • Lots of discussion about what changes need to happen in US society and laws
  • "...the [World Health Organization] recently announced that overfeeding is now a wider problem than starvation for the first time in history." (I could not find this reference anywhere else, however.)
  • "At its current population, the planet can't support a hunter-gatherer lifestyle or the sort of agriculture that fully replicates it."

Defending Home, Hearth, and Hedge Fund

Vicarious Social Settings from Shakespeare to Survivor

Intellectual Pursuits as Supernormal Stimuli

Get Off the Plastic Egg





Comments (0)

You don't have permission to comment on this page.