Playing on our instincts: Psychology professor says 'supernormal stimuli' drive many unnatural urges

Mar 18, 2010 By Alvin Powell
Deirdre Barrett, assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, argues in her new book that our innate instincts are overstimulated, leading to hard-to-resist appetites: People are bombarded by food that they crave, tempted by seductive images, and urged to buy products designed to appeal to specific wants, regardless of need. Photo: Rose Lincoln

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers have long known that lab animals’ behavior can be manipulated by artificially stimulating their natural instincts. Over-stimulating animals can provoke such extreme responses that they end up preferring artificial objects to the natural ones for which the instincts were designed.

Humans living in modern society are something like those lab animals, a Harvard psychology professor says. Like them, our innate instincts are overstimulated by unnatural products, as well as by advertising and images. And, like them, we respond almost unconsciously: reaching for more food, Web-surfing for porn, dumping time and money on “cute” toys, sitting for hours in front of televisions, and sending troops to fight a dehumanized “them.”

The difference between lab animals and us, however, is that overstimulation for animals isn’t present in nature. It can really only be found in the laboratory. If an animal escapes to its natural environment, it will return to natural stimuli and responses. For people, however, because we live in an artificial world of our own making, escaping those stimuli is not so easy.

But Deirdre Barrett, assistant clinical professor of psychology in Harvard Medical School’s Psychiatry Department, says that doesn’t mean there’s no hope for us.
Barrett, author of the new book “Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose,” says the first step is to understand what’s happening to us. Instincts and urges honed for hundreds of thousands of years to keep us alive in a world of scarcity are being subverted in the modern era of plenty. People are bombarded by food that they crave, tempted by seductive images, and urged to buy products designed to appeal to specific wants, regardless of need.

In her book, Barrett examines the history of research into supernormal stimuli, describing early behavioral experiments on birds and fish. In one, birds whose eggs were lightly speckled fell off as they tried to incubate ridiculously large, boldly polka-dotted fakes. In another, red-bellied male fish fought off artificial red-painted lures even when they didn’t look much like fish.

These outsized prods to normal instincts are called “supernormal stimuli,” and Barrett believes they’re present in our world today, sometimes quite intentionally, prodding us to buy and consume and do. It’s an easy sell, in many cases, because the stimuli give us a push to do things we’re already inclined toward.
Pornography, she said, subverts instincts intended for mating with people. Stuffed animals, dolls, and cartoon characters manipulate people’s preprogrammed affinity for childlike “cuteness.” She also looks at obesity, war, business, television, and even intellectual pursuits.

Though supernormal stimuli are not universally related to problems, Barrett said many of the episodes in her book do fall into that category. Understanding ourselves and the reasons we feel as we do, Barrett said, is the first step in overriding our , in our being able to resist the siren song of the Big Mac.

She also recommended new government regulation to help limit supernormal stimuli, particularly in areas where public health may be at risk, and to “put normal back into our lives.” It might be easier to eat healthier foods, she said, if we lived in a food environment where we weren’t blasted by ads for “supernormal foods.”

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Dr_Soupie
5 / 5 (1) Mar 18, 2010
Fascinating. Wisdom to consider in our artificial world:

"All things in moderation." ~ Thoreau

"Avoid indulging." ~ Don Juan
otto1923
4 / 5 (4) Mar 18, 2010
Not a new phenomenon: religion- yes religion- has been plying us with supersized visions of eternal refuge and peace from huge monuments and edifices. We could become so comfortable with this artificial promise that we would perform daring feats of suffering and sacrifice to appease those who promised it. Religion has been dazzling us with fantastic stories and magnificent promises from high pulpits and altars for 1000s of years. They were probably the first to capitalize on the suprenormal stimuli drive and have been perhaps its greatest beneficiaries. I would be surprised if the author didnt mention this.
paulthebassguy
4 / 5 (1) Mar 18, 2010
Great, now I've got that big mac song stuck in my head.
xponen
1 / 5 (1) Mar 19, 2010
In my opinion:
Pornography could have "supernormalled" our instinctual sexual desire with the idea of rape and sexual harassment. This is because; while we were seeking for something to satisfy our natural sexual, we were simultaneously bombarded with pornography content that feature rape and sexual harassment, which (if we were that aforementioned test-rat), would later seek real rape and sexual harassment just to satisfy this simple sex drive.
rgw
not rated yet Mar 19, 2010
Do nothing to excess; including abstinence.
otto1923
not rated yet Mar 19, 2010
In my opinion:
Pornography could have "supernormalled" our instinctual sexual desire with the idea of rape and sexual harassment. This is because; while we were seeking for something to satisfy our natural sexual, we were simultaneously bombarded with pornography content that feature rape and sexual harassment, which (if we were that aforementioned test-rat), would later seek real rape and sexual harassment just to satisfy this simple sex drive.
Except that these things have been going on for a million years.
Royale
not rated yet Mar 19, 2010
I dont think, xponen you can blame rape and harassment to porn. Women are much less degraded in today's society as porn is becoming more widely available. (Online explosion, both literally and figuratively).