Book Review: Supernormal Stimuli

In caveman days, it was logical that we should be attracted to sugary and fatty high-energy foods; there might be a tough Winter coming, so when there was energy to be had, it was wise to consume it. Those health-conscious cavemen that ate salads in the stone-age might more likely go extinct than those gorging on meat.

However, in first-world countries, food is plentiful and it makes little sense to seek the fattiest foods when “foraging in the food court.” Yet we still do, which is causing a global obesity epidemic. This kind of conflict between our desires and what is good for us lies at the core of Deirdre Barrett’s book Supernormal Stimuli. The book describes the conflict between modern humans and the things designed to super-stimulate us — like all the tasty things we might find in a mall’s food court.

The basic issue is that our culture and technology evolve very quickly, while our genes evolve more slowly. So while food is now plentiful in most modern cultures, our genes are adapted to scarce food and hunting and gathering. But there is a devious twist to the evolution of culture. We desire high-energy foods, and so as technology and cooking have developed, they have found artificial ways of satisfying our desires, better than natural foods ever could. In other words, our desires drive the evolution of increasingly unhealthy foods, foods that “super-stimulate” our taste buds beyond any food we’d actually have adapted to eating (e.g. tens of thousands of years ago).

And the same principle holds for exploiting other human desires. For example, we are drawn to certain ideas of cuteness, which served an evolutionary purpose for us to be drawn to care and love our young. Characteristics include: large heads relative to bodies, large eyes, infantile personality traits (e.g. helplessness, innocence, affectionate behavior). Toys and cartoons have gotten exceedingly cute, driven to super stimulate this desire, just as objective news networks have been driven to celebrity gossip and fixation on national disasters driven by our attentiveness to drama.

Barrett makes a convincing case that modern society largely consists of stimuli adapted to exploit our desires. From the hours spent consuming more exciting versions of our own lives on TV, to browsing the web for its endless stream of new, if often trivial, content, to our habits of increasingly watching sports or activities instead of participating, superstimuli drive us to seemingly be less human, to engage less with real people or real situations, to increasingly consume instead of interact or produce.

The book as a whole is well-written, interesting, and I think the underlying message is of crucial importance to humanity. The state of the world is increasingly driven by these superstimuli to the detriment of human lives. At least in reading the book one can learn to be aware of the subtle ways that we are manipulated by technology, food, and culture.

Here are some particularly interesting quotes:

What sells is hardly random to biology. Anything that sells spectacularly well is probably some type of supernormal stimulus. The media commercially exploit these instincts, but they didn’t create them.


We seem to have enough responses to cuteness to burn. But we want to know when we’re doing so. Do we want to be spending as much as we do on toys? Do we want to buy products ’cause their mascots have big eyes or lisp in commercials?


It seems a normal part of growing up — for some, an ongoing part of life even after establishing real relationships. 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 — though probably always stronger for the young and unattached, for women more than for men.”


Common men, and most academics, were unable to ask: ‘Why do we smile, when pleased, and not scowl?’ ‘Why are we unable to talk to a crowd as we talk to a single friend?’ ‘Why does a particular maiden turn our wits so upside-down?’ We don’t stop to imagine that things could be otherwise. James advocated that psychologists train themselves to ‘make the ordinary seem strange’ and ask why of any instinctive human act.’


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