Category: Deirdre Barrett

ROROTOKO : Deirdre Barrett On her book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overran Their Evolutionary Purpose : Cutting-Edge Intellectual Interviews:

Most people don’t try to parse cuteness. Like pornography, we know it when we see it.  With a bit of examination, however, cuteness has easily quantifiable aesthetics. Take a moment to picture whatever you find cute—puppies, kittens, cartoon characters or your own children.  Cuteness is the type of attractiveness associated with youth; your “cute” objects no doubt have many youthful traits.

Infants of most species have a small body with a disproportionately large head, big eyes, small nose, chubby limbs and clumsy coordination.  Youthful behavior includes playfulness, affection, helplessness, and a need to be nurtured. A few characteristics such as dimples and baby-talk are unique to humans, but most are common across species.

Evolutionary biologists view “cuteness” as simply the mechanism by which infantile features trigger nurturing in adults—a crucial adaptation for survival.  Scientific studies find that definitions of cuteness are similar across cultures.  So are our responses.

Anyone disheartened by research demonstrating that attractive adults are better liked and better paid than their homelier peers will be further dismayed at studies on infant cuteness.  Articles such as “The Infant’s Physical Attractiveness: Its Effect on Bonding and Attachment” document that stereotypically cute babies receive the most attention from both strangers and their own parents.  They run less risk of abuse or neglect.  Cute children proceed to get better treatment from teachers. Fortunately, most babies are cute enough to attract sufficient nurturing from parents and the world around them.  The decline of cuteness normally coincides with the child’s diminished need for caretaking, which gradually shifts toward younger siblings.

Toy manufacturers are well aware of what’s cute.  Dolls have grown progressively cuter: first they looked like people, then like children, then like supernormal exaggerations of children.  In the 1990s, the Journal of Animal Behavior published a series of articles on a creature not of the wilderness but of the marketplace.

“The Evolution of the Teddy Bear” traced the origin to 1900 when President Theodore Roosevelt was photographed in the Rockies, after a hunt, with a brown bear in the background.  The early teddies looked like bears—with a low forehead and a long snout.  Over the years, the teddy “evolved” to become the cute popular creature of now, laden with infantile features, including a larger forehead and a shorter snout.  “It is obvious that the morphological changes that have occurred in teddies in the short span of a little over 100 years have contributed greatly to their reproductive fitness,” observed the authors.  “There seem to be teddies all over the place.”

With tongue in cheek, but metaphor firmly in mind, animal behaviorists continued publishing on the evolution of the teddy.  They pointed out that the changes might be likened to mutation, but are actually closer to “intelligent design,” diverting human resources to enable teddies to reproduce at a phenomenal rate.

And that, my dear Digihuman listeners, is why kittens won the internet.

Digital Human, Series 12, Episode 5 – Insatiable

From The Amaz!ng Meeting 2012, author and psychologist Deirdre Barrett examines how “supernormal stimuli” have caused primal urges to overrun their evolutionary purpose.

Digital Human, Series 12, Episode 5 – Insatiable

Your mind is a victim of Stone Age instincts:

Supernormal stimuli could be produced for all major areas of animal behaviour. Instincts weren’t coded for a complex shape of what to nurture or mate with or attack. Animals responded to just a few simple characteristics that could easily be exaggerated. Territorial male stickleback fish ignored a real male to fight a dummy with an underside brighter red than that of any natural fish. Male butterflies ignored a receptive female to straddle small cardboard cylinders if their vibrations and stripes were more intense – the cylinders didn’t even need wings. These animal behaviours look funny to us… or sad. But just how different are they from our modern habits?

People sit alone in front of a plastic box streaming Friends instead of going out with their real buddies. They tend Farmville crops while shirking their real duties. Men have sex with two-dimensional screen images when a willing partner may be in the next room. Research finds the cutest babies – those with the largest eyes and smallest noses – get the most attention, but Hello Kitty beats any baby’s proportions.

Supernormal stimuli are a driving force in many of today’s problems, including obesity, addiction to television and video games, and war. The key is that supernormal stimuli reverse the natural relationship between instinct and object. “Trust your instincts” works only if we’re out hunting and gathering, not when we’re bumbling around shopping centres. Becoming aware of supernormal stimuli does more than alert us to how these unfettered instincts fuel dangerous excesses. Once we recognise how supernormal stimuli operate, we can craft new approaches to modern predicaments. Humans have one stupendous advantage over Tinbergen’s birds – a huge brain with an especially well-developed prefrontal cortex. This gives us the unique ability to exercise self-control, override instincts that lead us astray and extricate ourselves from civilisation’s gaudy traps.

Digital Human, Series 12, Episode 5 – Insatiable