Most animals, including humans, can be made to prefer the fake to the real. Sometimes this is funny and sometimes it is sad. Often both.
There are birds, such as the graylag goose, that will raise the chicks of other birds, and actually prefer to raise other birds’ chicks, as long as the invader bird looks more impressive than its own offspring. A bird can drop an egg into its nest, and if the egg looks healthier and fitter than its own, it will raise the imposter egg and neglect its own progeny.
This practice can be taken to ridiculous extremes. To note one colorful example, scientists were able get a graylag goose to try to hatch a volleyball, rather than its own eggs, because, according to the superficial aesthetics of the graylag goose, the volleyball looks more impressive.
Scientists call this phenomenon, “supernormal stimulus.” It is what happens when an exaggerated version of what appeals to evolutionary instincts can cause some one or some thing to engage in behavior counterproductive to its own survival (or the survival of its genes).
I have previously written that in my opinion the biggest problem that most people face in the developed world is that we are hardwired to live in an environment that is very different from how we now live. Our ancestral environment is very different from our modern environment.
I’m not the first person to say this.
But I think many underestimate or don’t appreciate that this gap is not just widening, but widening at an accelerated rate. Compounded growth in unhealthy and maladaptive stimuli are creating and will increasingly create unprecedented challenges for present and future generations. And I posit that subsequent generations will be selected for their ability to resist these ever-evolving stimuli (“hyperstimuli”).
Nobel laureate Niko Tinbergen invented the term “supernormal stimuli” to describe his research that showed that he could create artificial stimulus that appealed to animals’ instincts more than the original objects for which they’d evolved. As Deirdre Barrett wrote in her book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose, nature is replete with easily conned animals. Below are a few examples:
Male barn swallows have light brown chests and females choose the ones with the most intense color as an indication of fitness. Scientists with a $5.99 felt-tip marker can darken the chest of a previously scorned male, and suddenly females line up to mate with him.
Male sticklebacks ignored a real male to fight a dummy brighter red than any natural fish. They’d choose to escort an exaggeratedly round-bellied model over a real egg-bearing female.
Tinbergen and other students studied geese and found similar patterns. The characteristic that determined which egg a goose would roll back into the nest—color, size, markings—could be exaggerated in dummy eggs. The graylag goose ignored its own egg while making a heroic attempt to retrieve a volleyball.
And so, too, have we used the term supernormal stimulus to describe the non-naturally occurring treats that we have come to prefer over the real world treats around us.
The classic example of a human supernormal stimulus or a “superstimulus” is a snickers bar. There is no food in nature that is as sweet and as savory as a snickers bar. Our instincts tell us to seek out sweet and savory foods to survive. So Mars produced an inexpensive, tasty treat that satisfies our craving for both salty and sweet foods, and they’ve placed them next to the checkout counters of nearly every grocery store in the United States. And we buy them in huge numbers.
It’s no good for us. We know it’s no good for us. But Mars has to make 15 million a day to keep up with demand. We eat them far more than is evolutionarily adaptive (unless we are starving, the adaptive amount of snickers bars is zero). What’s worse, it serves as a substitute for naturally occurring, more nutritious food, leading to diabetes, obesity, and lots of other problems.
We prefer snickers to fruits and berries. We choose fictional stories about relationships on television over seeking out and developing our own relationships. We prefer to watch elite athletes play sports on television rather than exercising ourselves. Men prefer to watch enhanced models copulating on computer screens more than having sex with their partners.
Like the geese choosing the volleyball over its own eggs, we often prefer to indulge a fantasy of an exaggerated, fake version of our lives to the real experience.
The story is news to few of us, but worth re-telling.
We evolved to live in scarcity in the savannah 10,000 years ago. We now live in abundance, mostly in cities and towns. We evolved with instincts that tell us we should eat as much as we can, whenever we can. Because in the savannah, we never knew when our next meal would come from. But now most of us live within a short walk or drive from hundreds if not thousands of food options, with cuisine from every part of the world. Now, almost everyone in the developed world has the resources to eat to the point of obesity. And many of us do.
But it isn’t just about food. Beyond food, everyone with discretionary income is bombarded by opportunities for potent forms of superstimuli—drugs, video games, sports, politics, pornography, alcohol—we have opportunities for distraction and stimulation that are many factors more powerful than what our ancestors could have ever thought possible.
And these stimuli keep getting more intense.
Meanwhile, the stimuli in our professional lives aren’t as intense as they once were.
Being chased by a lion, starving to death, or going to war with a neighboring tribe isn’t a very secure way to live, but what it lacks in security, it makes up for in intensity. Near-death experiences have a way of focusing the mind.
By contrast, most of our professional responsibilities today can be distinguished by their non-lethal nature. Whether you spend your days debugging code, drafting legal contracts, managing accounts receivable, or selling widgets, it’s a safe bet that you at least occasionally struggle with motivation. And that’s in part because on a deep, fundamental level, we all know that what we’re doing daily isn’t a matter of life or death. Accounts receivable isn’t a struggle for survival.
On occasion, political dynamics and other pressures create artificial stress that focuses our attention like our ancestor who was chased by a lion. But for most of us, professionally, the greatest stress is of losing one’s job or failing at a business, rather than losing one’s life. And for most of us, if that happens, we’ll just get another job.
There are lots of ways to survive today that are easy to do, albeit incredibly boring. You can survive by working at Taco Bell or working in customer service or working as a lawyer. It’s just that it all damned near bores us to death while we do it. Our security creates that dullness that haunts our lives.
And so we have created an entire genre of non-fiction literature dedicated to the subject of productivity—the study of how to convince ourselves to do what we actually think we want to do. But the real reason we don’t work harder is that we don’t have to do it to survive.
The greatest fiction writers explore the most important psychological themes of their eras. Dickens explored the horrors of industrialization and the French Revolution; Conrad penetrated the dark heart of colonialism; Faulkner explored racism and bigotry in the deep south.
David Foster Wallace, perhaps the greatest fiction writer of the last part of the 20th century, was obsessed with subject with boredom. His last book, The Pale King, which was published posthumously, because he killed himself before he finished it, was all about boredom. The book is ostensibly about accounting and the IRS, but the underlying message is about tolerating boredom in the modern world. Wallace wrote, and may have believed, that the ability to overcome boredom was perhaps the most important factor to success. He wrote, “[t]o be, in a word, unborable. It is the key to modern life. If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish.”
Because if you are unborable, you won’t get distracted. And if you don’t get distracted, you’re going to be a lot more productive than everyone around you.
Because of competition for attention and resources, what was once considered tasty and great and entertaining a few years ago is no longer so today. Like it or not, capitalism is an optimization process that is designed to make things as rewarding as possible. To compete, industry must up the ante in the intensity of the stimulus to get us to notice.
To offer just a few examples:
Compare the clarity, quality, and variety of television today with those of a generation ago.
Compare the ubiquity and intensity of marijuana with a generation ago.
Compare the variety and intensity of beer with a generation ago.
Compare the quantity, availability, and intensity of pornography (you can find your own links) with a generation ago.
30 years ago, HTML didn’t exist. Now, half the planet is online, and the average American spends 15-plus hours a week online.
Compare the stimuli we post on social media to the humdrum nature of our actual lives. We post pictures of our most exciting vacations, our tastiest meals, and our most interesting moments. We follow the lives of the most fabulous and most attractive people we know.
And so on.
The trend is unlikely to stop here. Just as the stimuli of 40 years ago seem quaint and laughably dull today, so, too will the stimuli of the 2050s humble our current forms of diversion.
Meanwhile, our bodies and brains are more or less the same as they were when we were plodding around the Serengeti. Our superstimuli are turning hyperstimuli, but our capacity to resist the hyperstimuli are evolving at a glacier’s pace.
A few years ago, Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote an article about supernormal stimulus and the decline of civilization. In it, he cited a few articles about gamers who had literally died for lack of food or water because of their obsession with video games. These are extreme examples of people succumbing to superstimuli.
But there are others.
Life expectancy has topped out in the United States over the past three years. There has been an increase in alcohol-related deaths. Opioid addiction is rampant. And of course there is the problem of obesity and related physical and social problems.
In total, the average American spends 11 hours a day in front of electronic media.
We spend nearly all of our time absorbed by technology and forms of stimulation that didn’t exist a few generations ago. Basically, how we spend our entire waking lives has almost nothing in common with how all humans lived before 1900.
It isn’t enough to say that we are constantly inundated and bombarded by supernormal stimuli. For many of us, it’s become our whole lives.
The gap between highly controlled, low-stimulus work environments and potent stimuli options away from work has never been greater. And as the gap between normal stimuli and superstimuli continues to grow larger at an accelerating rate, so too will the impact of these superstimuli on society.
I don’t know how extensive virtual reality’s impact will be on society, but it would appear to be the ultimate form of supernatural stimulus. It is by definition a fake reality. And the goal is to get the technology to become so impressive that we will either not be able to distinguish it from reality or that we will prefer it to reality. To quote from Kevin Kelly’s recent book, The Inevitable:
The best of these achieve an unshakeable sense of presence. The usual goal for increasing the degree of realism while you tell a story is to suspend disbelief. The goal for VR is not to suspend belief but to ratchet up belief—that you are somewhere else, and maybe even somebody else . . . Cheap, abundant VR will be an experience factory. We’ll use it to visit environments too dangerous to risk in the flesh, such as war zones, deep seas, or volcanoes. Or we’ll use it for experiences we can’t easily get to as humans—to visit the inside of a stomach, the surface of a comet. Or to swap genders, or become a lobster. Or to cheaply experience something expensive, like a flyby of the Himalayas.
If Kelly is right, we’re just years away from ubiquitous, cheap, fake experiences that we will prefer to real life. In essence, it is the end game for superstimulus (until it is replaced by an even more impressive form of stimulus).
By now, you may believe that the point of this post is to warn about the dangers of supernormal stimulus.
But that’s not really where I’m going with it. That would be a normative judgment, and I’m not interested in those. What’s interesting to me is not lecturing people on the importance of avoiding snickers bars or virtual reality, but rather, the impact of these supernormal stimuli on the future of humanity.
Not just in how it impacts individuals, but how it impacts broader social trends and demographics.
Those who literally kill themselves through addiction to superstimuli are relatively few, but those who choose not reproduce or reproduce less because of obsession with superstimuli are many—and that number may be growing.
Supernormal stimuli are by definition evolutionarily maladaptive. The graylag goose that tries to raise a volleyball won’t reproduce, nor will the gamer who spends all his waking hours playing video games or immersed in virtual reality.
Virtual reality sex might become more pleasurable than real sex soon enough. But if you chose the virtual kind over the natural kind, your genes will end with you.
Perhaps less dramatically, anyone who lives in an urban center probably has friends or acquaintances who have chosen not have children, simply because they prefer an epicurean lifestyle. This is not a phenomenon that occurs in the poorest countries in the world, but rather one that is unique to the wealthiest. It is the equivalent of saying, “I don’t want to fulfill my evolutionary purpose because the food and wine around me are too tasty.”
There is data to back up the anecdotes: Few would argue that heavy drinking is healthy. But the data show that the hardest drinkers may well be drinking themselves out of the gene pool. Of the 25 heaviest-drinking countries in the world, not a single one has a birthrate at or above replacement level. Whether it is causation or correlation I’ll leave for someone else to perform a factor analysis to determine, but there is certainly an open question whether the heaviest drinkers are drinking themselves out of existence.
[Note: I wasn’t able to find any studies that analyzed alcohol or drug consumption and birthrates. Nor of any studies on the subject of heavy video-game playing on birthrates. If anyone knows of a study on either subject, please let me know.]
Contrast this with the birthrates of teetotaling Mormons and Muslims, and it is plain to note the trend of who is going to survive to populate the planet over successive generations, if this trend continues, will be the ones with the capacity or the social structure in place that helps them to resist superstimuli.
We have long known from the Stanford marshmallow experiment and similar studies that the power to delay gratification is strongly correlated with improved life outcomes. But as the stimuli around us grow in their intensity, so too might the importance of this trait in terms of creating improved personal and genetic outcomes.
Perhaps more than any other trait, those who can resist will be those who inherit the earth.