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Dec 2012 by PCI College

Even Better Than the Real Thing

The Role of Supernormal Stimuli in Unhealthy Behaviours. “I can resist everything except temptation.” Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan.

“I can resist everything except temptation.”  Oscar Wilde, Lady Windermere’s Fan.

At this time of year, we often resolve to change some of our less healthy behaviours into more healthy ones – to watch less TV and walk more, to eat less junk food and more fruit and vegetables, etc. In this context, if you’re not already familiar with the concept of the Supernormal Stimulus, it’s worth knowing about…

Imagine that you have the choice of eating either:

a.    a bacon double cheeseburger
b.    a green salad

or of watching either:

a.    an episode of a crime drama series
b.    a documentary on national crime statistics over the past year

Ok, if you are going for choice “b” in either case, you’re spoiling my argument, but most people will say choice “a”, although they may add that they probably should be going for “b”. In fact, we often promise ourselves that we will do more of the b-type options, and then find ourselves yet again going for the bar of chocolate instead of the apple in the newsagents.

These hard-to-resist options, which seem to sap our ability to make healthy choices, are called “Supernormal Stimuli”. By this term we mean artificially enhanced stimuli which elicit particularly strong, highly-motivating, hard to resist, responses at all levels – in our thinking, our emotions, our physiological reactions, and of course our behaviour.

Wikipedia gives the following definition:

A supernormal stimulus or superstimulus 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.

For example, a moth will spiral into a flame because it is adapted to navigate by the sun (a much more distant light source). When it comes to eggs, a bird can be made to prefer the artificial versions to their own, and humans can be similarly exploited by junk food and pornography. The idea is that the elicited behaviours evolved for the "normal" stimuli of the ancestor's natural environment, but the behaviours are now hijacked by the supernormal stimulus.

The concept is derived from ethology. Konrad Lorenz observed that birds would select for brooding eggs that resembled those of their own species but were larger. 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 round 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).


Other classic examples of supernormal stimuli are slot machines and video games. They are clearly designed to be super-normal, indeed the more so the better.<

Jokes are another example, according to one recent book:
“…jokes are prime examples of super-normal stimuli that take advantage of our natural propensity for humor-detection in much the same way that perfumes, makeup, artificial sweeteners, music, and art give us exaggerated experiences with respect to the natural world. Thanks to their refined designs, they tend to have the power to induce in us a far stronger and richer sense of the ludicrous than everyday “found” stimuli, however humorous. Few events in real life are so funny, on their own, as to be unimprovable into still funnier episodes with a few fictional touches.”

Hurley, M.M., Dennett, D.C. & Adams, R.B. Jr. (2011) Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

And of course smartphones and iPads and Kindles are among the latest and greatest supernormal stimuli (and indeed deliverers of supernormal stimuli).

The relevance for New Year resolutions is that we should never underestimate the power of supernormal stimuli, or overestimate our ability to resist them. Supernormal stimuli are by definition artificially-enhanced (especially in relation to the simpler environment which the human species originally evolved to adapt to). Their purpose, even if we are not always conscious of this (advertisers are!), is to provide desirable emotional rewards in the form of better-than-average positive mood-alteration (pleasure, distraction, comfort, excitement, etc). They do this by subverting and hijacking evolved appetites/instincts/motivational systems, over-stimulating their associated neural pathways. This makes them hard to say “no” to.

Mood-altering drugs such as alcohol, caffeine, cocaine, heroin etc, do the same thing (i.e. over-stimulate the neural pathways associated with evolved appetites/instincts/motivational systems) in a more directly-targeted way. Alcohol, of course, is generally consumed in such a way as to also make use of the supernormal stimulus effect – we rarely ingest alcohol purely for its own sake (except at the chronic stage of alcoholism); rather we enjoy its taste, its branding, its setting. Even vodka, which probably has little going for it apart from the fact that it contains alcohol, is often marketed using terms such as “pure” and “distilled” – typical supernormal terminology.

I am not trying to suggest that we should try to live without supernormal stimuli – it would be very difficult to live a human life that way, especially a normal modern human life, and the attempt would be have to be undertaken in rather extreme circumstances, like a Buddhist monastery, or an Amish community, or East Germany under Communism. Anyway, many supernormal stimuli are pretty harmless – Christmas tree lights, teddy bears, DVD box sets, cartoons, pop hits...

But many are harmful, not only to those individuals who may be contemplating their New Year resolutions, but also to society at large. “Junk” foods (i.e. highly processed foods containing large amounts of sugar or other refined carbohydrates, fat, salt etc, and low amounts of fibre) are the classic example, hence the current discussions with regard to a possible “Fat Tax” in this and other countries.



The argument over introducing such a tax often runs along the lines of freedom of choice versus government control (and revenue-raising), but the reality is that making supernormal stimuli less accessible is at least one effective factor in reducing their overuse. As I said above, we tend to underestimate the power of supernormal stimuli, and overestimate our ability to resist them.

So whatever else you do, at least don’t kid yourself that you can keep exposing yourself and resisting. Stay away from the biscuits aisle in the supermarket (where the products are not only highly processed to be sweet and crunchy, but packaged to look visually attractive, and supersized for added “value”). Don’t visit YouTube if you don’t want large amounts of your time to get used up before you know it. Don’t shop in the service station (apart from for petrol, obviously!).

By definition supernormal stimuli make great rewards/treats of course, so we can make positive use of them by doing the chores or the exercise or the meditation first, and then watching the thriller and having the chocolate biscuit (maybe not the cheeseburger). Hopefully we already know some of these common sense suggestions regarding keeping New Year resolutions, but maybe this time around they can be assisted by remembering that supernormal stimuli are supernormal, and we’re only normal, only human.

As Deirdre Barrett says (in Barrett, D. 2010, Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose. W.W. Norton.), “We don’t have to just ‘listen to our instincts’…”

Our instincts are sometimes reliable, but it’s clear that they can also be hijacked, fooled, subverted.

So watch out for supernormal stimuli, and have a Happy New Year!

Eoin Stephens
President, PCI College

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