The Tyranny of Supernormal Stimuli

In one habitual click I was surfing Facebook, my eyes automatically drawn to the happy red notification indicator. Another click revealed that a once-met acquaintance had posted a photo. Then a quick flicker of satisfaction as red returned to neutral grey. Already on the site, I scrolled to view updates and pictures from other marginal friends. The whole episode was pointless, but soon I’d lightly itch to repeat it.

What causes the irrational comfort from habitual visits to social media sites? Why do we feed our unproductive voyeuristic curiosity by sifting through the posts of people we barely know, whether on Facebook or Twitter or Instagram? The emptiness is clear – yet still we scroll and click. In sober moments it’s clear that our lives would improve by instead spending our time on things of meaning, like visiting or calling the ones we love. But most of us don’t uproot these silly habits.

How and why do we become addicted to technologies that don’t serve us? For one thing, we’re immersed in them: Our mobile phones beep with notifications and texts and updates. But that’s not the whole story – how did we come to be immersed in them, and why have technologies offering trivial sorts of pleasures become so dominant in our lives, distracting us from the things that really matter? The truth is that they’ve been engineered to exploit our base desires; and that this exploitation is often subtle and beneath our awareness.

Manipulation #

We must be cautious of forces that undermine our highest ideals beneath our deliberate awareness. Often we don’t make a deliberate cognitive choice – a habit may be something we casually slip into over time. I never said, “Hey, I really want to throw away my valuable time reviewing inane tidbits of near-strangers lives,” – that would be insane. But over time, I still fell into that orbit. In other words, as it’s happening we’re not always aware that we’re being manipulated; or even if we realize that our behavior is changing, we might not even consider it as manipulation. It’s destructive exactly because we don’t see the trap even as we’re slipping into it.

While Facebook is a trivial example of this kind of subversive force – a website explicitly designed to steal our time – we’re surrounded by products, services, advertisements, cultural ideals, and political and economic systems that are designed to manipulate us. Now, it’d be one thing if all these systems had no effect on us. and it’s tempting to believe that we’re immune to them: “Sure, other goons fall for this stuff, but I can watch advertisements all day and not be affected.”

But there’s something that science has demonstrated time and time again: Our environment influences us (often without our knowledge) in subtle ways – even as we disbelieve that we are being influenced, or even as we are aware of the trickery itself.

Supernormal Stimuli #

Think about it: How would you engineer something to manipulate human desire? More than a hypothetical, this is a concrete industry in the world. Every day there are people plotting how to change your mind; it’s big business to those in advertising, product development, food science, and almost any other consumer business. The lifeblood for most companies is the money of consumers, so almost any business benefits from the ability to influence consumers.

It turns out that a good strategy is to graft onto existing human needs. And for good reason: Natural evolution has already programmed us to respond to this kind of natural stimuli, and exploiting those existing responses is much easier than inventing a new desire wholesale.

That’s why advertising strategies are like a walk through a biology textbook: Sex is important to survival of the human race – and that’s why sex sells. And at one time food was scarce for all humans: That’s why we desire energy-rich foods, those high in sugar and fat (even if we’re overweight, because back then it was never certain that food would remain plentiful!). So it’s no surprise that fast food is high in calories. And because understanding the world was important to how our ancestors survived, our bodies generate a chemical bump whenever we discover something new; but as a result, we’re becoming addicted to trivial sources of novelty (like facebook, reddit, and imgur).

Of course, all of these desires make sense in the context of our evolutionary past. Seeking out new information (no matter what kind) made sense when we were cavemen and no one was trying to invent fountains of trivial information solely to addict us. But that’s no longer the case: Because natural evolution is a slow process – much slower than our ability to invent exaggerations of natural signals, those natural signals are now no longer reliable. That is, our invented exaggerations and perversions of these natural signals hypnotize us even as they undermine us. These kinds of exaggerated signals are called supernormal stimuli, in contrast to the natural stimuli our bodies evolved in response to.

Awareness #

So what’s the point? Why should we care about supernormal stimuli? Well, the point is that there exists a business-driven machine that’s operating to influence us by creating exaggerated versions of things we as humans naturally respond to. It’s not that there’s this group of evil people trying to destroy us, it’s just that this business machine is driven by money, not by what’s in our best interests. Who is best served by the photoshopping industry that exaggerates feminine beauty into an impossible extreme? Sure, it sells more magazines, but in the process, it alters our conception of beauty, spawning an epidemic of eating disorders and life-long struggles with body image. Who wins from junk food explicitly engineered to addict us? Not me or you, that’s for sure. Some big food corporations win – at the expense of our health. But it’s not that business or capitalism is evil, it’s just that we as a culture aren’t enough aware of how we’re being manipulated; if we were, we’d vote with our wallets, and rebel against being treated as an ATM instead of a human being.

We are in the end, autonomous and in control of our own destiny, even as we are susceptible to manipulation. And so, being aware of the machinery designed to exploit our natural tendencies in search of our money, we can learn how to avoid those temptations. Or, perhaps we’ll find that it’s necessary to make laws or new economic incentives to better align the best interests of corporations with our own as human beings, especially where now they often conflict. Our economy should serve our interests as a society and as a people, not seek to undermine us. Humans are what are most important, after all: Profits may make the world turn round, but they’re at most an important tool, not a meaningful goal divorced from how their achievement affects us all.


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