Life in a world of super-normal stimulation

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Nikolaas “Niko” Tinbergen captured the world’s attention when he managed to monopolize the attention of male butterflies with his cardboard female that looked much sexier than the real deal.

Niko Tinbergen was a Dutch ornithologist and biologist interested in explaining animal instincts, and what the factors that influenced these automatic behaviors. One such experiment consisted of painting oversized cardboard butterflies with exaggerated colors that mocked the natural tones of the female.

When placed in an area with a lot of males and females together the males ignored the real females and swarmed the painted up “hussy” to the point that it could no longer be seen. Only at that point did the remaining males even take note of their female cohort, who were quite plain in comparison.

Tinbergen similarly experimented with other stimuli influencing interaction in other species. He found that territorial male stickleback fish would attack wooden fish more vigorously then their real counterparts if the underbodies were painted a brighter red.

Lest female readers become smug about male animal responses he also noted that female birds preferred to sit of plaster eggs that were larger and painted in dayglow colors as opposed to the subtle tones of the natural egg.

With such experiments he was able to identify which stimuli set into motion the respective mating, attacking and nurturing responses in the various species. He coined the term “supernormal stimuli”, pointing out that these stimuli were similar to, but overstatements of, of what is normal or natural.

It doesn’t take much effort to see the implications for human behavior.

We live in a world filled with supernormal stimuli from fast food to television. It is pretty tough for many of us to get enthusiastic for a big, juicy apple while driving past Cold Stone. As much as I appreciate my immensely practical and comfortable Honda minivan, I do forget when watching commercials for the latest Lexus sports car.

It is likewise difficult for a child to appreciate the beauties of real life in contrast to the intense sounds, colors and action of media—tv, movies or video games.

Video games easily hold a spell over many young males craving opportunities to do something brave or heroic. Standing up for truth and right seems pretty unremarkable when compared to saving the universe with repeated keystrokes.

The concept of supernormal stimulation is readily apparent when considering the phenomenon of pornography in its various forms. Like the befuddled butterfly males and females alike flock to the specimens with exaggerated features. (It also helps that the fake never plays coy or rejects advances.)

But, like the butterflies, nothing is accomplished while attempting to connect with the cardboard floosy. Nothing is passed on to future generations; the purposes behind the drive go unaccomplished. While enamored with the tawdry fake, attention is drawn away from what is real deal.

Women often mourn that they cannot compete with the images readily available online, even those who are partially clad. But women are also increasingly falling into the trap of visual pornography. We don’t often hear about this growing problem as young women are so often ashamed that they have fallen for something so obvious.

But they may overlooked the fact they may be falling for other decoys. Remember that “Grey’s Anatomy” ruled the airwaves for years, due largely to “McHunky” or whatever the lead heart throbbed was called. Women quickly learn that no one can hold a candle to their favorite leading men whose intense, thrilling careers never interfere with being one hundred percent available to the women they love.

I still get irritated when I think of the “Twilight” phenomenon. How does a real man with greying hair and a job compete with a 99-year old, day-glow vampire whose only object in life is the girl who smells just right? One of my students reported that several LDS Young Women’s groups attended these midnight premiers with their leaders.

Yes, we do live in a world of supernormal stimulation, in which reality is frequently overshadowed by intense sounds and images. It takes wisdom and a good degree of self-control to set aside the tawdry for the real deal.

That is perhaps one of the draws of this area for many people. A short drive or walk can leave you surrounded with the beauties of nature.

But consider also paying attention to the natural beauty of the social word as well. Connect with friends, smile at a stranger and wish her/him a good day, or play with a child.

Stand for truth and honor by choosing not to participate in demeaning conversations—both face-to-face and online.

Do something real.


About the Author:

Michael Williams is a licensed psychotherapist, a Marriage and Family Therapist with over 25 years' experience. A specialist in quickly improving important relationships, he is also an expert in helping clients to quickly overcome problems with anxious, depressed or irritable moods.

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