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

4.3 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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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 (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #288,495 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.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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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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Format: Hardcover
Super normal stimuli are anything which pull an instinct more strongly than whatever the instinct evolved to seek out. Evolutionary psychologist Deirdre Barrett revives Nobel-prize-winning animal behaviorist Niko Tinbergen's concept and builds on his original insight, applying it to modern human problems. Animals encountered supernormal stimuli only in experiments, but humans are making our own all the time now. The book makes the case that supernormal stimuli--or our reactions to them--are the biggest problems faced by affluent societies. However, becoming aware of the concept could enlist our reasoning abilities in making wiser decisions than we are now. The book is packed with solid science but it's also entertaining and illustrated with spot-on New Yorker cartoons. Best new idea I've read since The Selfish Gene.
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