Supernormal Stimulus

supernormal-stimulus

A supernormal stimulus is an exaggerated version of a stimulus to which there is an existing response tendency, or any stimulus that elicits a response more strongly than the stimulus for which it evolved. The idea is that the elicited behaviors evolved for the ‘normal’ stimuli of the ancestor’s natural environment, but the behaviors are now hijacked by the supernormal stimulus.

British art scholar Nigel Spivey demonstrates the effect in a 2005 BBC documentary series ‘How Art Made the World’ to illustrate neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran’s speculation that this might be the reason for the grossly exaggerated body image demonstrated in works of art from the Venus of Willendorf right up to the present day.

Dutch ornithologist Niko Tinbergen, following his extensive analysis of the stimulus features that elicited food-begging in the chick of the Herring Gull, constructed an artificial stimulus consisting of a red knitting needle with three white bands painted around it; this elicited a stronger response than an accurate three-dimensional model of the parent’s head (white) and bill (yellow with a red spot). Tinbergen and his students studied other variations of this effect. He experimented with dummy plaster eggs of various sizes and markings finding that most birds preferred ones with more exaggerated markings than their own, more saturated versions of their color, and a larger size than their own. Small songbirds which laid light blue grey-dappled eggs preferred to sit on a bright blue black polka-dotted dummy so large they slid off repeatedly. Territorial male stickleback fish would attack wooden floats with red undersides—attacking them more vigorously than invading male sticklebacks if the underside were redder.

Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett argues that supernormal stimulation govern the behavior of humans as powerfully as that of animals. In her 2010 book, ‘Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose,’ she examines the impact of supernormal stimuli on the diversion of impulses for nurturing, sexuality, romance, territoriality, defense, and the entertainment industry’s hijacking of our social instincts. In her earlier book, ‘Waistland,’ she explains junk food as an exaggerated stimulus to cravings for salt, sugar, and fats and television as an exaggeration of social cues of laughter, smiling faces and attention-grabbing action. Modern artifacts may activate instinctive responses which evolved in a world without magazine centerfolds or double cheeseburgers, where breast development was a sign of health and fertility in a prospective mate, and fat was a rare and vital nutrient.

2 Comments to “Supernormal Stimulus”

  1. Very interesting and an excellent post, although I would reserve judgment on Barrett’s theses for the time being.

    I see that someone involved in this post is a ‘Poser’ adept :)

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