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Supernatural Stimuli


The seductive pull of screens that you might not know about


Blame it on supernormal stimuli

In my previous blogs, I describe the role of classical conditioning in the pull of technology. There is another, perhaps even more, influential way in which we get drawn into using technology. There is another, perhaps even more influential, reason why we are drawn to our smartphones, though. Our screens can act as what are known as supernormal stimuli, which may, in ways, have a negative impact on our lives…and those around us.

discovering Supernormal Stimuli

Dutch biologist Niko Tinbergen is credited with discovering and describing supernormal stimuli. Tinbergen noticed how animals would react to certain stimuli. For example, the color red will trigger certain instinctive behavioral responses for different species. Tinbergen was particularly fascinated with the male Stickleback fish and how they 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.

Tinbergen found that other animals would also elicit stronger responses when presented with an exaggerated stimuli. For example, a mother bird is more likely to sit on larger plaster eggs than on her own natural eggs. Thus, “supernormal stimuli” are so named because the intensified stimuli can elicit preferential responses in animals.

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. In evolutionary terms, you would think we’d prefer natural, healthier foods over fried, processed, fatty, sugary junk foods, right? So why are we often drawn to junk food, such as potato chips and doughnuts, over natural foods like carrot sticks, raw broccoli, apples, and plain, raw nuts? Why do foods like doughnuts, pizza, and french fries taste so darn good?

Factors, including cost and easy access, aside (because those do play some part in all of this) the draw to junk food is powerful for a reason. The reason lies in part with supernormal stimuli. 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, fiber, and energy. But now we can purchase processed, high caloric foods that contain insane amounts of salt, sugar, and fat virtually anytime and anywhere.

Food manufacturers have learned to capitalize on this natural tendency to be drawn to junk food. That’s why so many restaurants and grocery stores provide us with foods that are so high in salt, sugar, and fat. They get rich and we get fat. We know these foods are unhealthy, yet we consume them anyways. Supernormal stimuli “hijack” our brain’s natural reward system so that we feel compelled to pursue and obtain them.

Over time, this lead to the obesity epidemic that we now have. In fact, 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.

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 as we are constantly checking our phones. Well, we are drawn to many technologies 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 initiate texts and respond to them because texts 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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