Supernormal Stimuli

Posted on April 2, 2015


Ain’t nothing like the real thing” Ashford and Simpson, 1968

Even better than the real thing” U2, 1991

When I was in undergrad[1], one of my psychology textbooks had a picture of a small bird trying to sit on a very large egg.  The photo related to the work of the late Niko Tinbergen and his work with supernormal stimuli.  Supernormal stimuli were created by taking a stimulus to which an organism is instinctively programmed to respond and making it larger than life.  In the case in point, birds would try to sit on a larger and more colorful egg rather than their own eggs.  In another, a territorial male fish would respond more aggressively to a wooden model of a fish if the model’s underside was redder than a real fish.  In these cases, making the stimulus supernormal (larger than life) generated a greater response from the animal.  Animals that were programmed by instinct to respond to a certain stimulus would respond with greater intensity to a more intense stimulus.

In one interesting experiment, male butterflies tried to mate with cardboard butterflies with more pronounced markings over real female butterflies (you see where this is headed, right?).  This appears to be a form of butterfly pornography.  The male butterfly sees a larger than life version of a stimulus that is designed to generate a mating response.  Even if it is only cardboard, it seems preferable to the real and normal stimulus.

We humans basically do the same thing.  We create sexual images that are larger than life both in terms of physical perfection and the nature of the sexual experience.  Then we end up choosing the fake supernormal stimulus over the real thing.  Hence, pornography viewing is correlated with a greater incidence of erectile dysfunction and a tendency to find your real partner less desirable.  Continued use adversely impacts one’s ability to respond to the real thing.

The word of encouragement here is that our brains have neuroplasticity to them.  That is to say, they can change.  When we stop bombarding ourselves with unhealthy supernormal stimuli, we can begin to respond in healthy ways to normal stimuli again.

[1] Back during the Carter administration.

Posted in: Sex, Sexual Addiction