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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: #962,553 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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 Verified Purchase
When I picked up the book I did not have high hopes. I was very pleasantly surprised to read the first chapter about the Niko Tinbergen and Konrad Lorenz. I had read about them individually but not as in this telling of their long and happy relationship which bore intellectual fruits for both. A heart warming story. That was just the first chapter. The second chapter deals with our ideas on beauty, sex and attractiveness as derived from the concepts of sociobiology. The author's style is light yet the content comes across wonderfully. She is a capable write and I venture that she is a capable scientist as well because to describe something so well you have to fist understand it well.
I am thoroughly enjoying reading this book and will sure to check out her other books.

King Solomon's Ring (Routledge Classics)
Curious Naturalist
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Fascinating book, I read this in college for my evolutionary psychology course several years ago. To this day, I still site some of their ideas in conversations involving "why we instinctively do things that don't make sense". I consider it a must read for someone with a curious and open mind!
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