Humans have only experienced modernity as a blip – for the rest of our existence, the natural world was the basis of all our stimulus. Rapid changes in the way we live, not least in the last 20 years have brought supernormal stimuli, says Eaon Pritchard; understanding this phenomenon has vast potential for strategic thought.
Human biological evolution solves only ‘adaptive’ problems, the kind that concern surviving long enough to successfully pass on our genes into the next generation.
Among these problems are; what to eat, avoiding getting eaten, finding the best quality mating partners, and competing with each other for status and resources.
These are the kinds of problems that were the most common in the ‘environment of evolutionary adaptedness’ - the stone age hunter-gatherer environment our ancestors navigated - not our modern world of technology, media, celebrities and consumerism.
It was during this time - that’s approximately 99% of human existence, the Stone Age lasted for a couple of million years - that our minds did almost all of their evolving. A time when we lived in small groups of maybe only a few dozen people gathering plants and hunting animals.
Our modern world is a tiny, tiny blip in comparison.
We only developed agriculture about 10,000 years old, the industrial revolution was just over 200 years ago and the internet has only been around for about 20 years. Not nearly enough time has elapsed for our minds to adapt to these new conditions. Our modern minds are designed for solving ancient Stone Age problems, not for dealing with the supernormal stimulus of the 21st century.
The theory of supernormal stimulus was developed in the 1950s by biologist and ornithologist Nikolaas ‘Niko’ Tinbergen. He found that biologically salient objects, like beaks and eggs, generated far more interest from his bird subjects when they were painted, pimped and blown up in size.
In one experiment herring gull chicks pecked more at big red knitting needles than adult herring gull beaks, because they were bigger and redder and longer than real beaks.
A young student of Tinbergen called Richard Dawkins experimented with male stickleback fish and supernormal dummy females. The real female sticklebacks naturally swell up when they are fertile and full of eggs.
By making his dummy female fish much bigger and rounder than normal the males became more attracted to the dummies. Dawkins is credited with introducing ‘sex bomb’ into the lexicon in describing this example.
Evolution has designed male Australian jewel beetles to seek cues of shiny amber-brown surfaces with the presence of dimples, as these were almost certain to be female beetles. This normal stimulus triggered a normal adaptive behaviour. But Australian beer bottles – stubbies - give off these exact same cues, only much bigger and shinier.
They are everywhere in the male beetles' environment and the boys are getting distracted. Beer bottles are a super-normal stimulus for male beetles, triggering a maladaptive behaviour.
Of course, many animals exaggerate features to attract mates, mimic other species or protect themselves against predators. But these changes happen slowly over evolutionary time.
Supernormal is a term that can be used to describe any stimulus that elicits a response stronger than the stimulus for which it evolved.
Junk food is a super stimulus version of real food to humans. Things like sugar and fat – that were biologically salient, but scarce in the stone-age environment – are all around us, in abundance, every day.
But it’s not just the external cues that are super-normal, but the internal rewards too. A Big Mac gives you a bumper hit of sugar, fat, and flavour far more intensely than a bowl of rolled oats or boiled cabbage.
Oscar Wilde famously stated ‘I can resist everything but temptation’. None of us can. Stuffing our faces with calories, drinking and taking drugs, gambling, obsessing over the lives of celebrities whom we are never likely to meet instead of going out in to the real world and forming real relationships, competing for status at work and generally wasting time with people who wouldn’t care if we lived or died rather than spending time with our families. These are just a few examples of common, and maladaptive, behaviours.
Of course, all of these new temptations mentioned are hard to resist, because in the world our minds evolved to inhabit they didn’t exist. They are supernormal stimuli that elicit a response stronger than the stimuli for which their response mechanisms evolved.
Humans, however, now have the cultural tools that allow us to consciously manipulate these signals in real time, and the makers of these tools know this very well.
If you were the planner in an ad agency anytime between 1965 and about 10 years ago, your work was fairly straightforward. You would do your research, find some insights and – if you were any good – develop an interesting platform that creatives could jump from to make the ads.
But the sexier modern advertising environment has raised our reward thresholds. The old rewards just don’t synergise 24-7 mindshare, do they?
Our new blockchain content glasses are super-normal stimulus causing maladaptive behaviours.
The super successful products of the digital economy like Facebook, Twitter, Tinder, Instagram are all supernormal stimuli. They work so well because they are perfectly adapted to create supernormal stimuli for our Stone Age minds. We are wired to compete for status among our peers in the small groups on the savannahs we used to inhabit. But now we can super-compete with millions of strangers on the internet.
So, the next time you hear about how the internet is rewiring our brains, it’s really the internet adapting to and exploiting how our brains work.
Because, rather than being an all-purpose information processor, the mind consists of a number of specialised ‘modules’, or apps, designed by evolution to cope with certain recurring adaptive problems.
The mind’s ‘apps’ are specific processes that evolved in response to our ancestral environment. Our minds have apps for mating behaviour, gossip, looking out for family members, making deals with strangers, signalling personality traits and so on. The successful products of the digital economy are the ones that mirror and exaggerate these response mechanisms.
What’s modern is in our environment, not in our minds.
And an OS update takes thousands of generations to load, unfortunately.
So for your next disruptive innovation idea, just find a super-stimulating version of a natural reward. But make it sexier, cuter, sweeter, bigger, louder or with more teeth.
There’s a free strategy for you. Off you go.
Psychological junk food.
Although, AI robot sex dolls is already becoming a crowded category.
The above is an excerpt, adapted from Eaon's forthcoming book 'Where Did It All Go Wrong? Adventures at the Dunning-Kruger Peak Of Advertising' which comes out in January 2018 and will be available for pre-order soon on Amazon worldwide.