on 16 May 2010
That the world we humans live in is radically different from the world our instincts evolved for is apparent to social scientists, evolutionary psychologists, and biologists. This fascinating book adds a new perspective. It argues that "supernormal stimuli" are leading us astray in many arenas: eating, sex and war, among others. Barrett borrows the title term from ethology, where it refers to stimuli with exaggerated colourings or markings or shapes that lure animals to, for instance, sit on fake eggs or mate with cardboard insects. Barrett suggests that the increasing tendency of modern society to create supernormal stimuli for ourselves exacerbates many human problems.
It's an important insight that affords an "aha" experience. It explains much self-defeating, self-destructive human behavior.
The book is both scholarly and entertaining, and here Barrett joins the top tier of outstanding scientific writers for a wide audience. She has a flair for witty analogies between animal follies and their human counterparts. The New Yorker cartoons and photos of animals and people caught in goofy acts complement the text.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to think scientifically about human behavior.
The cuckoo succeeds by exploiting the natural inclination that bigger is better. The female cuckoo sneaks into the nest of another species when the parent bird is away and displaces an egg with one of its own. The egg resembles those of the host but is usually a little larger and brighter. The nest owner consequently sits on the cuckoo's egg in preference even to its own. The young cuckoo's beak is a little wider and redder than any other that survive and its preferential treatment continues.
This phenomenon was given the name Supernormal Stimuli by Nobel Prize Winner Nico Tinbergen, who discovered examples throughout nature. Geese would attempt to sit on volleyballs in preference to their eggs and Sticklebacks would attempt to mate with brightly painted sticks in preference to less brightly coloured females.
These might sound like the rather sad behaviour of `simple' creatures, but the book's subtitle hints at how the same behaviours can be found in ourselves.
Following a chapter that explores Nico Tinbergen's life there are six chapters that each explores an aspect of the effects of supernormal stimuli in human affairs.
Sex for Dummies
Whilst we may mock the Stickleback, this chapter explores how we've developed entire industries dedicated to the reshaping of the human form for sexual stimulation.
Discover the power of cuteness and how our behaviours to other people and animals are triggered and conditioned by a simple set of criteria.
Foraging in Food Courts
Explores how our basic instincts developed for life on the savannah have been exploited to create the obesity epidemic and the reasons for our inability to respond effectively.
Defending Home, Hearth and Hedge Fund
3000 people died in 9/11 and in 2001 41,370 Americans died in road traffic accidents. Discover why we react so differently to these two tragedies and what makes us ready to fight.
Vicarious Social Settings from Shakespeare to Survivor
Explores the impact of television and other media encourage us to live our lives vicariously through the lives of others and the impact this has in creating sedentary lifestyles.
Intellectual Pursuits as Supernormal Stimulii
Helps illuminate the interest we find in games and puzzles and how our career choices are influenced. It includes some salutary pointers to the future where for example the pursuit of what is
interesting in the field of human cloning will override controls on its prevention.
It seems to me that an inability to be content in having enough is at the heart of conflict between groups and unhappiness in individuals. Much of our Western way of living is built upon cultivating this sense of discontent. We must always be striving for something out of reach.
This book helps explain how our basic instinct can be subverted, but also offers us help. Unlike the stickleback, we are able to stand back and observe and should we choose, to make changes. The final chapter `Get Off the Plaster Egg', implores us to do so.
on 16 August 2014
Supernormal Stimuli is a short but rewarding read. It has a few minor flaws, such as superficial and un-nuanced discussions of political issues that should probably have been either left out or treated in greater depth, but the overarching argument is compelling and, as it were, extremely stimulating. Barrett convingly shows that the modern human experience is fraught with supernormal stimuli that tickle our evolved pressure points in ways that make them almost impossible to resist.
on 8 August 2010
A fascinating book that overturns some popular mythology about "trusting your instincts". Seen through an evolutionary psychologist's eyes, the popularity of fast food, the use of pornography and the appeal of teddy bears are exposed as symptoms of our over-reliance on instincts that have outlived their purpose. This book allows us to engage our brains and improve our lives