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Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose Hardcover – February 22, 2010

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Deirdre Barrett is an evolutionary psychologist at Harvard Medical School’s Behavioral Medicine Program. She is the author of several books, including Waistland, Trauma and Dream, and Supernormal Stimuli. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; First Edition edition (February 22, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 039306848X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393068481
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #765,153 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D. is a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School's Behavioral Medicine Program. She Past President of both the International Association for the Study of Dreams and the American Psychological Association's Div. 30, The Society for Psychological Hypnosis. Dr. Barrett has written four books: The Committee of Sleep (Random House, 2001) and The Pregnant Man and Other Cases from a Hypnotherapist's Couch (Random House, 1998), Waistland (Norton, 2007) and Supernormal Stimuli (Norton, 2010). She is the editor of four additional books: Trauma and Dreams (Harvard University Press, 1996), The New Science of Dreaming (Praeger/Greenwood, 2007), Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy (Praeger/Greenwood, 2010), and The Encyclopedia of Sleep and Dreams (Greenwood, 2012). Dr. Barrett has published dozens of academic articles and chapters on health, hypnosis, and dreams. She is Editor-in-Chief of DREAMING: The Journal of the Association for the Study of Dreams.
Dr. Barrett's commentary on psychological issues has been featured on Good Morning America, The Today Show, CNN, Fox, and The Discovery Channel. She has been interviewed for dream articles in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Life, Time, and Newsweek. Her own articles have appeared in Psychology Today and Invention and Technology. Dr. Barrett has lectured at Esalen, the Smithsonian, and at universities around the world.

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18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Morton Schatzman on May 16, 2010
Format: Hardcover
That the world we humans live in is radically different from the world our instincts evolved for is apparent to social scientists, evolutionary psychologists, and biologists. This fascinating book adds a new perspective. It argues that "supernormal stimuli" are leading us astray in many arenas: eating, sex and war, among others. Barrett borrows the title term from ethology, where it refers to stimuli with exaggerated colourings or markings or shapes that lure animals to, for instance, sit on fake eggs or mate with cardboard insects. Barrett suggests that the increasing tendency of modern society to create supernormal stimuli for ourselves exacerbates many human problems.

It's an important insight that affords an "aha" experience. It explains much self-defeating, self-destructive human behavior.

The book is both scholarly and entertaining, and here Barrett joins the top tier of outstanding scientific writers for a wide audience. She has a flair for witty analogies between animal follies and their human counterparts. The New Yorker cartoons and photos of animals and people caught in goofy acts complement the text.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to think scientifically about human behavior.
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Amex on May 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I'm an avid popular science pleasure reader, so I ordered this book right after hearing the author on the radio. I'm so glad I did!
It is a fascinating book, very well-written. The concepts are explained in a way that makes them easy to grasp. The animal to human metaphors are truly illuminating. The main point of the book is supernormal stimuli, which are exaggerated versions of natural stimuli to which there are existing instinctual responses. Barrett discusses how our evolved instincts are overwhelmed by technological advances, population density, and other facets of modern society. She explores how pornography, unhealthy diets, and even the quest for nuclear energy as opposed to wind or solar energy can be explained by supernormal stimuli. One reader said he liked the early chapters which are closer to standard evolutionary psychology better than the later more speculative ones. I disagree: I think the ideas in the later chapters are novel and exciting and offer ideas about how to deal with problems of our modern world that I haven't heard anywhere else. Excellent book; I recommend it highly!
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20 of 27 people found the following review helpful By John on May 18, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I'm currently reading Supernormal Stimuli ... and it's a fast-moving, readable, chatty little book. (I don't think Barrett's thesis is as revolutionary as she suggests it is. I have a sense that the idea has been banging around the evolutionary psychology literature for a while ...)

Still ... only a third of the way through, I'm concerned about some inaccuracies in the book:

(1) she refers to dominant gorillas as "graybacks" where the standard term is "silverbacks" (p. 48)

(2) she offers a table of "Children Found Living with Animals 1900-2004" (p. 57) and recounts at relative length the story of Amala and Kamala (the Mindnapore "wolf girls"). Barrett is either unaware of or hides the fact that many (if not most) of the cases on her chart are suspect. The Wikipedia entry on the girls summarizes french scholar Serge Aroles's fairly solid argument that the entire Amala and Kamala story is a hoax.

(3) BTW, Barrett's account of Amala and Kamala are based on two sources ... one a chapter from McCrone's 1993 book and the other a 1966 source.

Granted, these problems don't impact her main argumment. And I realize that this book is slightly outside Barrett's specailty area. Okay, fine. But ... things like this suggest to me a book that is a little too fast and loose with scholarly standards of care.

So as I continue to read the book, I'll be a little more cautious. Which is probably ALWAYS a good thing when reading popularizations of biological evolution ....

But anyone reading the book would do well to be similarly careful .....

John Wolfe
Iowa City, Iowa
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful By M. W. Moffett on May 12, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Is an out-of-control infatuation with large breasts and small waists -- made possible by Photoshop rather than reality -- healthy for us as individuals and as a society? How often are we hurt by modern products offering amped-up versions of what we desire: unhealthy but super-rich foods, television programs offering fake friends and adventures; watching sports from the sidelines rather than expending health-inducing calories to participate; the loss of face-to-face interactions with others in favor of facile opportunities of connecting on the internet. Barrett goes into everything from the nature of human aggression to the meaning of small testicles of human males. Excellent -- Buy it, read it, recommend it!
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20 of 28 people found the following review helpful By born into this on June 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I thought I should warn others like myself who were seduced by the cover and or title into thinking that this was a serious or scholarly book. A very quick read, it is in the final analysis on the order of science laced op-ed. The author appropriates the concept 'supernormal stimuli' in order to opine on current social issues relating to fast food, relationships, war, television, and to offer self-help strategies in these areas.

There are humorous cartoons but there is no delving into the concept as it was originally thought-out or an attempt to understand the implications of the actual phenomenon in any serious or philosophical way.

It could be that the concept does not lend itself to a book-length treatment, which would explain why the author begins with an interesting biographical sketch of Nino Tinbergen and then proceeds to simply apply his conceptual term without rigor to her various banal socio-cultural hobby-horses. There was no reason whatsoever to go into the life of Tinbergen as it is of no relevance to the author's intent. That intent is simply to persuade us to collect our problems under the rubric of 'supernormal stimuli'. Otherwise she has nothing to add to the already vast commentary on civilization versus the stone age.

Take the chapter 'Sex for Dummies': If I have to endure another uncritical rendering of Devandra Singh's universal male preference for a female waist-to-hip ratio of .7 I will have to subject myself to another round of firewater (call it an unhappy hour-glass). There have been at least two studies showing that men will actually choose even lower ratios, even ones not found in nature. This finding would have actually been consistent with the idea of supernormal stimuli.
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