Harvard Psychologist Proposes “Supernormal Stimuli” Lead to Modern Excesses

The notion of a supernormal stimulus may seem fairly foreign to some, yet a quick look at modern Western society can readily yield recognizable examples. Artificial foods and clothing, beauty treatments, even objects presented as sexual desire online or in a magazine have been criticized by many for their impact on the quality and fulfillment of modern life. Recently, a psychologist with Harvard University has published a book discussing these supernormal stimuli and the role that they play in today’s lifestyles and mental environment. Much of the psychologist’s research is based on animal models, and she points out that supernormal stimuli are absent within the natural environment of animals. Within the human world, however, a large focus on artificial products and experiences can make it seem difficult to escape.

The psychologist points to studies involving animals that, when overstimulated, will begin to prefer items that are not real to those which are authentic, even to the point of what might seem like absurdity. A study involving birds found that those who were over stimulated began to exhibit a preference for over-sized polka-dotted eggs that were vastly different from their own, and the birds even allowed their true eggs to fall from the nest as they worked to protect the artificial stand-ins. Similar studies with a wide variety of animals have showed that when certain instincts involving an item that registers as rare or desirable are activated, strange and potentially undesirable behaviors often result.

The new book explores how human psychology throughout evolution has reacted to supernormal stimuli, and the psychologist makes the argument that in the modern era, when practically anything imaginable is able to be obtained, and commodities that were once extraordinarily rare can be purchased with a fair degree of ease, an overexposure to these stimuli may account for many of the social and personal concerns with which people find themselves grappling.

© Copyright 2010 by By Noah Rubinstein, LMFT, LMHC, therapist in Olympia, Washington. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Iris

    Iris

    March 22nd, 2010 at 10:42 AM

    This is why now it seems everyone needs more more more for anything to even make an impression on them. When are we going to realize that rather than enough is enough, we should really all be saying that enough might just be TOO much!!

  • SANDRA G.

    SANDRA G.

    March 22nd, 2010 at 12:09 PM

    While it may be true that people tend to get carried away by glittery and expensive stuff,it would be very wrong to say that we would do the things the birds have exhibited…after all, we are not bird-brains, are we…?! ;)

  • L.fischer

    L.fischer

    March 22nd, 2010 at 3:10 PM

    There can be no doubt that most people today are lost in their riches-accumulation missions.

    Also,they have forgotten to value the most important thing in life in lieu for materialistic things-relationships.Human relationships are by far the most important thing in this world but all that has been throw out of the window as most of us look to gather as much of materialistic things as we can and are also mesmerized about the things rather than care about the relationships.

  • Jason

    Jason

    March 23rd, 2010 at 5:03 AM

    I think that this is somewhat akin to the whole addiction cycle. If someone has one drink one day then that might feel pretty good. And then they continue to drink but in order to experience the same kind of high they have to drink more or move on to something new. That’s the way we are. Nothing seems to make a dent or make an impressin with us until we are overstimulated. That’s a sad commentary on society don’t you think?

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