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supernormal stimuli

Technology as Supernormal Stimuli

supernormal stimuliIn my previous blogs, I described the pull of technology as well as how classical conditioning and smartphones create a powerful pull on us. There is another, perhaps even more influential, way in which we get drawn into using technology. Technology as supernormal stimuli can pull us into using it in ways that have a negative impact on our lives…and those around us.

What Are Supernormal Stimuli?

Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen is credited with discovering and describing supernormal stimuli. Tinbergen noticed how animals, such as the male stickleback fish, would react to certain stimuli, such as the color red, with instinctive, behavioral responses. In the case of the male stickleback fish, these fish would strongly defend their territory from other male sticklebacks. Tinbergen wondered what stimulated the male stickleback to defend its territory. Through his observations and experiments, he discovered it was the red underbelly of the fish.

Then Tinbergen created other stimuli with the color red. For instance, he would paint a piece of wood red, place it in the water, and, sure enough, the male stickleback would attack the block of wood. This is despite the fact that the wood was only vaguely fish-like in appearance.  Interestingly, by presenting the stickleback with an exaggerated version of the stimulus that provoked the aggressive, territorial response, Tinbergen was able to get the male in question to respond more strongly and preferentially to the exaggerated version of the stimulus than to another male stickleback! That is, supernormal stimuli can cause an animal to have a greater reaction to the exaggerated stimulus than to the natural stimulus.

Animals, including humans, are hardwired (i.e., genetically programmed) to respond to certain stimuli because they have a survival value in evolutionary terms. Supernormal stimuli, in essence, hijack the natural response tendency and cause animals to respond more strongly, and often preferentially, to the exaggerated stimuli. Importantly, supernormal stimuli tend to activate some of the same reward systems in the brain that are involved in addiction.

Humans and Supernormal Stimuli

Humans are so much more evolved than most animals, but does this protect us from the effects of supernormal stimuli? In short – NO! Let’s take junk food as an example. We are naturally drawn to salt, sugar, and fat. In the state of nature, these are in short supply but are important to our survival. Sugar in foods like fruit provides a wonderful source of calories, nutrients, and energy. But now we can purchase high caloric foods virtually anytime and anywhere.

Food manufacturers have learned to capitalize on this natural tendency to be drawn to these foods. That’s why so many restaurants and grocery stores provide us with foods that are so high in salt, sugar, and fat. We are drawn to them, so we buy them. They get rich, and we get fat. Most of us would agree that Krispy Kreme donuts, deep dish pizza, and venti frappucinos taste great. But we also know that they aren’t good for us. Yet, we consume them anyway.

What’s the aggregate effect of food manufacturers capitalizing on supernormal stimuli within their products? More than 2/3 of Americans are overweight and over 1/3 are obese. According to one published study, 18% of Americans die each year because of obesity. In a way, it’s very odd that we are so drawn to foods that are so unhealthy for us. One might think, from an evolutionary standpoint, we’d prefer carrots over potato chips. But clearly, as a society, we do not.

Supernormal stimuli are the reason why we generally prefer the taste of unhealthy foods to healthy foods. Supernormal stimuli “hijack” our brain’s natural reward system so that we feel compelled to pursue and obtain them. Over time, this leads to the obesity epidemic that we have. Interestingly, supernormal stimuli don’t really exist in nature. They are man-made. Krispy Kreme donuts don’t grow on trees.

Technology as Supernormal Stimuli

So what do technologies such as email, Facebook, texting, gaming, and, yes, even Internet pornography have to do with supernormal stimuli? We know that they can have a grip on us such that we are constantly checking our phones, social media, texting, emailing, gaming, and so on. Well, many of the technologies that we are most drawn to are because they represent supernormal stimuli. They are exaggerated versions of stimuli to which we are evolutionarily prone to respond.

Let’s take texting as an example. In evolutionary terms, communicating with others and maintaining strong relationships are critically important for our survival. We are social creatures, and our very survival depends upon establishing and maintaining healthy relationships with others. But evolutionary heritage did not prepare us to be texting at all hours to our entire social network.

These virtual networks are much larger than the social groups in which we evolved. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar puts the maximum number of social contacts we can maintain at 150. Thus, we are drawn to both initiate texts and respond to them because they are a supernormal stimulus – texting is an exaggerated version of our biological need to establish relationships.

The Takeaway?

Our technological world is filled with supernormal stimuli. Our cell phone in our purse or pocket is the digital equivalent of having a fresh, warm Krispy Kreme donut on hand that we can nibble on whenever we desire. When we wonder why technology can have such a grip on us, we need to keep in mind that technologies such as social media, texting, and gaming are supernormal stimuli. They are exaggerated versions of stimuli that, evolutionarily, we cannot consistently resist. In my next blog, I cover another powerful way in which we get hooked by technology.

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