Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose

Deirdre Barrett

Book cover

This was a weak book on what I think is a very interesting topic. I hope I’ll be able to find a better treatment somewhere.

OK, so to start, Barrett defines supernormal stimuli as being cases where an exaggerated facsimile can exert a stronger pull than the real thing. She treats a super broad array of topics, and for some of them, the link to supernormal stimuli seems pretty tenuous. There are some cases, like pornography and fast food, where the connection is pretty clear to me. But the discussions of, for example, war and organized sports just didn’t connect very well.

For a book on a nominally scientific subject, the treatment is almost comically superficial. Not only does Barrett try to cover about six different topics, she does it in 180 (small and relatively widely spaced) pages, including a completely unnecessary chapter on the biography of Niko Tinbergen. The references are pretty sparse at times, especially given the broad claims Barrett makes, and many of them are to popular media. As an obvious example, I didn’t ever observe her to cite Kahneman’s work on System 1 and System 2 mental processes, which would seem to be extremely relevant. Also, I think Barrett often over-naturalizes the “African savannah” on which our brains evolved, focusing on how we can get our brains back into a context more like the one we evolved in rather than thinking more creatively about how we can intelligently shape our context in a forward-looking way.

I think Barrett fails to address a real elephant in the room, which is capitalism. As the cuckoo egg example shows, there are uses for supernormal stimuli outside of a capitalist context. But I think that capitalism is what has really led to an explosion and flourishing of supernormal stimuli, and awareness of this has to be a key element in arming ourselves against them, both individually and collectively. In part, I do think this book suffered from being published in 2010, before the real power of A/B tested and machine-learning-driven invasive stimuli was demonstrated by Buzzfeed et al, and most recently by the use of Facebook by the Trump campaign and Russia. (Microtargeting is a powerful handmaiden for supernormal stimulus.)

If you think this is an interesting topic, I would highly recommend instead reading the short story “Liking What You See: A Documentary”, by Ted Chiang (see my GR review of the collection Stories of Your Life and Others). Although it is fiction, I think it is an extremely thoughtful and nuanced treatment of the relationship between evolved stimulus-response and morality.

My Goodreads rating: 2 stars