Sunday, October 3, 2010

Beware of Supernormal Stimulus!

If a bird is given the choice between nesting on a large plastic egg or on its own egg that it recently laid, it will choose the larger egg, even though it is cold, smells of plastic and has the wrong texture.

This tendency in nature for any stimulus that is an exaggerated version to elicit a stronger response than normal is called the ‘Supernormal Stimuluseffect.

It was first observed by the ethologist Konrad Lorenz in brooding birds. Since then it has been observed in a wide variety of creatures. For example, there is an Australian beetle species whose males are sexually attracted to large and orange females – the larger and more orange the better. This creates a problem as the males attempt to mate with beer bottles that are just the right color – the males are more attracted to the bottles than to actual females.

The effect in humans...

In humans, it is argued that phenomena such as sexual fetishes and our delight for junk food can be largely explained as examples of supernormal stimulus effects. Candy bars are a great example of supernormal stimulus, they contain more concentrated sugar, salt, and fat than anything that exists in our ancestral environment and we love them. Some people are so strongly attracted to candy and chocolate that they’ll continue to eat them to the point of damaging their own health.

Other examples of human responses to supernormal stimuli are evidenced in how we like the colors of flowers so we breed bigger and brighter ones; we like sweet scents, so we manufacture strong perfumes; we like sexual stimuli, so create clothes and cosmetics to exaggerate them. We also prefer tall people, large breasts in women and super-models who have exaggerated levels of human beauty such as large eyes and facial symmetry.

The key and important thing to note about the effect of supernormal stimuli is the instinctual preference we have for those things that are larger, shinier and more exaggerated than normal.

The effects of supernormal stimulus can link to and drive life denying patterns of greeding. They can lead to behaviors of over-indulgence due to the strong unconscious responses we have to super-stimuli. So it’s vitally important to track for these effects in your life and then use conscious decision making to moderate your behavior. Make life enhancing choices through intelligence rather than through evolved instinctual patterns and desires. More greed is not better!

"There are limits to self-indulgence, none to restraint.”
Mahatma Gandhi

And if you are interested, you can read more about Supernormal Stimuli and how to overcome them in this fascinating book:

Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

A Harvard psychologist explains how our once-helpful instincts get hijacked in our garish modern world. Our instincts—for food, sex, or territorial protection— evolved for life on the savannahs 10,000 years ago, not in today’s world of densely populated cities, technological innovations, and pollution. We now have access to a glut of larger-than-life objects, from candy to pornography to atomic weapons—that gratify these gut instincts with often-dangerous results. Animal biologists coined the term “supernormal stimuli” to describe imitations that appeal to primitive instincts and exert a stronger pull than real things, such as soccer balls that geese prefer over eggs. Evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett applies this concept to the alarming disconnect between human instinct and our created environment, demonstrating how supernormal stimuli are a major cause of today’s most pressing problems, including obesity and war. However, Barrett does more than show how unfettered instincts fuel dangerous excesses. She also reminds us that by exercising self-control we can rein them in, potentially saving ourselves and civilization.


  1. This is the first time I've heard of supernormal stimuli. But we can certainly see it all around us! My conclusion: Just say No to supersized fast food, and just say No to cosmetic surgery!

  2. Orange beer bottles? Could one of these brightly painted propane tanks become beetle porn for a stud bug? Yeah, the term "supernormal stimuli" has flown low on my radar in the past as well. Have never seen it applied this way before. It does explain McDonald's super-size it campaign. Most interesting. Thanks for offering up this subject in your latest, amigo.

  3. Hey Grant, that's a great blog post! Its even far more stimulating than your other blog posts lol

  4. Hi Grant
    I want to draw attention to your lucid predicate, as quoted here within; "Evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett applies this concept to the alarming disconnect between human instinct and our created environment" is an alarm bell referring to a disconnect that most of humanity is not listening to or can't even hear. In regards to our created environment, collectively we humans, have almost past the point of no return, as we are so disconnected from nature, that 'we' don't even see our secular civilisation in free fall.

  5. Hi everyone, thanks for commenting. Yup, the processes I've been sharing over recent posts, such as supernormal stimulus, hedonic treadmill, greeding etc. are responsible for a lot of the runaway life denying behaviors and results we are creating in our world. Understanding these processes and learning to control them is life enhancing, which is why they make it onto this blog. Hopefully if we all spread the word, more people will become aware of how easy it really is to control and change our destiny. We really can do heavening on earth, but from what I see when I look around, humans have a penchant for helling....

    best, Grant


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