Supernormal Stimuli

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Supernormal Stimuli
Supernormal Stimuli cover.jpg
AuthorDeirdre Barrett
CountryUnited States
PublisherW. W. Norton & Company
Publication date

Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose is a book by Deirdre Barrett published by W. W. Norton & Company in 2010. Barrett is a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School. The book argues that human instincts for food, sex, and territorial protection evolved for life on the savannah 10,000 years ago, not for today's densely populated technological world. Our instincts have not had time to adapt to the rapid changes of modern life.[1] The book takes its title from Nikolaas Tinbergen's concept in animal ethology of the supernormal stimulus, the phenomena by which insects, birds, and fish in his experiments could be lured by a dummy object which exaggerated one or more characteristic of the natural stimulus object such as giant brilliant blue plaster eggs which birds preferred to sit on in preference to their own.[2] Barrett extends the concept to humans and outlines how supernormal stimuli are a driving force behind today’s most pressing problems, including modern warfare, obesity and other fitness problems, while also explaining the appeal of television, video games, and pornography as social outlets.[3]


  1. Supernormal Stimuli—What Are They?
  2. Making the Ordinary Seem Strange
  3. Sex for Dummies
  4. Too Cute
  5. Foraging in the Food Courts
  6. Defending Home, Hearth, and Hedgefund
  7. From Shakespeare to Survivor: Entertainment as Vicarious Socializing
  8. Intellectual Pursuits as Supernormal Stimuli
  9. Conclusion: Get Off the Plaster Egg


Evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett borrows Mr. Tinbergen's phrase—and builds on his original insight—for her brief and timely study of "how primal urges overran their evolutionary purpose," wreaking havoc along the way... Ms. Barrett does a good job of explaining the scientific roots of today's supernormal-stimuli overload and of tracing its effects—from the ubiquity of hormone-triggering pornography and its bad influence on personal relations to the news media's hysterical coverage of child abductions and the ways in which such coverage creates the impression that a rare phenomenon is commonplace... Her book's biggest weakness: the failure to weigh the costs of supernormal stimuli against their often substantial benefits. —The Wall Street Journal.[4]

'Follow your instincts'—it's that old adage we all hold true. Well, don't. Harvard psychologist Deirdre Barrett argues our ancestral minds are leading us astray in a 21st century world. From obesity to beauty, warfare to television, it's time to use our big brains better. ABC-Australia.[5]

The concept of a supernormal stimulus is essential to understanding the influence of evolution on organisms in artificial environments—which in the case of humans is almost every aspect of our surroundings. In this clear and thoughtful book, Deirdre Barrett offers the first comprehensive overview of the many ways in which we stimulate ourselves that the forces of evolution never anticipated. –Steve Pinker.[6]


  1. ^ "Supernormal Stimuli". The Scientist.
  2. ^ "Playing on our instincts". 18 March 2010.
  3. ^ Barrett, Deirdre. "Your mind is a victim of Stone Age instincts".
  4. ^ Akst, Daniel The Bookshelf Feb. 25, 2010 The Wall Street Journal
  5. ^ "Don't follow your instincts! Supernormal stimuli". Radio National. 13 September 2011.
  6. ^ Barrett, Deirdre (22 February 2010). "Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose". W. W. Norton & Company – via Google Books.

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