- BBC News World *
Why do we like what we like and how our most basic desires sometimes push us in the wrong direction?
In the late 1940s, two great scientists, Nobel laureate Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian zoologist, and Dutch biologist Nikolaas “Niko” Tinbergen, co-founders of the field of ethology (behavioral biology), were interested in how instinct works. .
His experiments revealed something unexpected: instincts, which had evolved to help animals live better lives, could be manipulated in the laboratory.
if they changed the trigger of behavior and the behavior itself became strange.
Herring gulls, for example, have a small red spot on their beak that the chicks instinctively peck at so that the mother regurgitates food.
But Tinbergen and Lorenz found that the chicks pecked even more when presented with a red-painted wooden knitting needle.
The needle could not give them food, but still they preferred it to their mothers.
Rare. And it gets even weirder.
Birds that instinctively incubate their small blue-gray speckled eggs, abandoning them as soon as they were given a fake plaster egg twice larger than normal size and fluorescent blue with black polka dotsto sit on that huge fake egg that there was no way they could have laid.
There were more experiments until it became clear that Tinbergen and Lorenz had stumbled upon a strange phenomenon.
If an instinctual behavior occurs in response to a specific stimulus – like red spots on a beak, spots on a blue egg – when you exaggerate the stimulus you get an exaggerated response, sometimes to the detriment of the animals themselves.
They called the phenomenon “the supernormal stimulus.”
The feathered expert
Tinbergen and Lorenz’s experiments were interesting, but contrived: most animals would never have encountered these particular exaggerated stimuli outside the laboratory.
But there are supernormal stimuli in the real world that temper the finely tuned instincts of animals.
And a master of these elaborate tricksis anothera bird: the cuckoo.
These famous tricksters do not raise their chicks. The females lay their eggs in the nests of other smaller birds and leave their future baby in the hands of the unsuspecting host bird… the parents never see their chicks again.
As soon as it hatches, the cuckoo chick kills the young of the host birds and removes the remains of the nest.
The parent birds are left with that one hungry monstrous chick, of a totally different species.
But instead of kicking him out immediately,horrifiedstart feeding it.
“Often the chick is 8 or 10 times larger than the parent birds feeding it, so how on earth does the cuckoo chick get food when it grows up in a nest of a bird much smaller than itself?” asks Rebecca Kilner, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Cambridge.
This is where the supernormal stimulus comes into play.
Most chicks of all bird species have wide, bright red mouths that stimulate the parents to feed them, but the cuckoo’s is supernormal.
“It has a very vivid huge mouth, much redder than those of the host chicks usually are, which it waves at the mother bird’s face,” Kilner told the BBC NatureBang programme.
In addition, its begging call is very loud and very fast, much more so than the offspring of the cheated mother would have had.
“It takes advantage of the host bird’s nervous system in such a way that it just can’t resist it and the impostor in the nest, who has nothing to do with their own offspring and in whom they have no genetic interest, ends up enslaving it.”
Curious… and a little creepy.
We don’t… right?
With just a color and a song, the cuckoo chick has the power to once again trick the mother birds’ instincts – instincts perfected by millions of years of evolution – into acting against their own interests.
But surely we humans would not fall into those traps. We wouldn’t sit on a huge beach ball and feed monstrous baby aliens against our will.
Not only do we fall but, before and after Tinbergen and Lorenz began to paint eggs, we have been architects of our own swindle.
We are probably the only creatures that create our own supernormal stimulifake and exaggerated imitations to which we respond more strongly than the originals to fool our own instincts, sometimes harmfully.
“The best example, in my opinion, is cotton candy,” says evolutionary psychologist Becky Burch of the department of human development at the State University of New York in Oswego, USA.
“The normal stimulus is sugar. We like sweet foods, but I emphasize the word ‘food’ – they have nutritional value for us.”
Our instincts evolved to hunt and gather in the African savannah millions of years ago, and while the vast majority of us live in a very different world, our instincts remain calibrated to seek rare rewards in a world of scarcity.
We are attracted to salt, sugar, and fat, which are key to our survival.
Fruits, for example, were a source of calories, nutrients, fiber, and energy. And its sweetness, a reward for the long and incessant work of getting food.
Today, sugar is often on hand, and “it fascinates us; cotton candy has exaggerated that taste to the point where it doesn’t even look like food: it’s a puff of fluff.”
That can be said of many sweets, so difficult to resist that we impose diets.
Not only that, emphasizes Burch, who is not a specialist in cotton candy, but in pop culture and, particularly, comics.
And in those comics, as we know, superheroes have unrealistic body dimensions… could those exaggerations be a supernormal stimulus?
Berch and his colleagues did a study, the results of which they reported in an article called “Captain Dorito and the Bomb.”
“The vast majority of male comic book characters, especially heroes, have an absurd waist-to-hip ratio: their shoulders are more than twice the width of their waists.
“For the female characters, the waists are 60% less wide than the hips.”
But,after all, they are cartoons, what’s the big deal!
However, the more you think about it, the less sense it makes.
Why would a woman who didn’t have room for all of her internal organs or a man whose skeleton couldn’t support the weight of his own massive shoulders be attractive?
They would be inhuman, but that’s how supernormal stimulation works.
Our instincts go awry, leading us toward food with no nutritional value or strange inhuman humans, not just in comics.
And it doesn’t come down to that
It’s Barbie with its crazy dimensions, it’s Pokémon with its huge baby eyes invoking all our protective instinct…
…it is pornography showing impossible idealizations of sex, it is drugs, games of chance, fashion and sports…
…these are video games that invite you to immerse yourself in other worlds and programs like the popular series “Friends”, with its supernormal version of the social stimuli we are conditioned to look for: attractive people with friendly expressions that are effusively kind, who smile and laugh constantly…
…it’s the bright TV screens that distract all your attention, the colorful notifications on your phone that you’re addicted to, your social networks, their advertising…
…and it’s a bit overwhelming.
ANDn this world saturated with supraok, can we be happyces with normal?
“That’s the problem with supernormal stimuli. It draws you into something that is both longed for and impossible,” says Berch.
“We know the problems we have, for example, with sugar, we want it, we put it in everything and we suffer health consequences.
“When it comes to comic book-like bodies, we like them, we want to have them, but they’re beyond human reach and what does that do to our expectations and our body image?”
We’re like poor cuckoo host parents, driven toward things that hurt us, except – unlike them – we create them.
But Burch says that sometimes simply paying a little more attention is enough to put the psychological effect on hold.
“The longer you stare at these idealized bodies, the more absurd they become: It’s like eating too much cotton candy, you get sick. You start thinking, ‘That body is weird.'”
Even birds can do it: there’s a little songbird, says Rebecca Kilner, that can fight off the supernormal stimuli, the superb wrasse in Australia.
“Sometimes you suddenly see them stop feeding the cuckoo chick, ignore its desperate calls, and even start dismantling the nest.”
If the arrogant badass can resist, surely we can too.
“You have to look beyond the supranormal stimuli,” advises Berch. yesOn, by definition, too much of a good thing and healthy boundaries need to be maintained… though there’s nothing wrong with a little sugar every now and then“.
* this artarticle is based on the BBC series NatureBang episode “Cuckoo Chicks and the Supernormal Stimulus”. If you want hear itClick here.
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What is the supranormal stimulus, the curious phenomenon by which the instincts can be twisted – BBC News World