We live in a world of addicts.
Just look around. Everybody is hooked on something.
Which one are you hooked on?
It’s a rare individual who doesn't at least have a partial addiction to one of these things.
We're all addicted. And we're all suckers for the companies that sell our addiction to us.
What the hell happened to us?
Each of us has only one life to lead. One precious life with a finite amount of time.
If that's the case, then..
Why do we spend so many hours on social media even when we don't want to?
Why is everyone watching porn instead of having sex?
Why do we spend so much time sat still staring at a glass box of wires?
Why do we choose to progress inside video games instead of the real world?
Why do some of us eat junk food all the way to our deathbeds?
What the hell is wrong with human beings? Are we all fucking crazy?
Our actions don't make any sense.
But there is logic to our actions. It's just that the logic we use is based on the environment we lived in 20,000 years ago.
If you want to thrive in the modern world, there is something you need to understand.
the modern environment is a minefield of superstimuli
Ok. At this point you’re probably wondering..
What is a superstimuli?
In 1970, scientist Niko Tinbergen was studying geese, when he discovered that he could create artificial eggs that geese preferred to their own eggs.
He exaggerated the colour, size and markings on these artificial eggs and left it near the goose’s nest. The goose would ignore it’s own eggs and roll these artificial eggs back to it’s nest instead.
At one stage, one goose made a valiant attempt to roll a volleyball back to it’s nest.
Because the goose is evolved to look for certain markers on the egg (the size for example) and prioritise these eggs over the others.
To this goose, the volleyball (that has similar features to a giant goose egg) was a superstimuli.
It saw what appeared to be a huge goose egg and all of it’s instincts told it to roll it back into the nest as quickly as possible.
Of course these are just animals, us humans are far too smart to fall for a trick like this, right?
Businesses sell superstimuli to us every single day.
Porn creators exaggerate the stimulus of female sexuality by enhancing the lighting, makeup and sound effects (Uh! Yes! Uh!). Some men actually prefer porn to real sex. And many men spend far more time watching porn than having real sex.
MMORPG’s (like World of Warcraft) create an exaggerated version of progression that teenage boys and men prefer to real world progression.
Its an evolutionary mismatch.
Businesses create artificial superstimuli that we prefer to natural stimuli.
Our brains are not evolved to deal with the superstimuli we encounter today.
Capitalism has created extreme versions of stimuli that we as humans find almost impossible to ignore. For example:
Sugar was scarce in the environment we’re adapted for. We’re hard-wired to consume as much of it as we can.
Sugar is naturally found in sugarcanes. It’s a natural ingredient, so what’s the problem?
Here’s the evolutionary mismatch.
Sugar is no longer scarce in our environment. In fact, its everywhere. It’s a cheap ingredient that makes food tastes great, so it's perfect for food manufactures who want to improve their profit margins.
And not only is it everywhere, it’s refined. They have become experts at refining sugar at the chemical level. So the sugar in our food is far sweeter than the sugar found in the sugarcane.
Sugar is extremely addictive (which is another reason food manufacturers love it so much). Have one piece of candy and you immediately want another.
The insane state of the obesity crises and the extreme rates of diabetes are testament to the damage that a legal superstimuli can do.
Being obese is not simply being lazy. It’s an addiction to the superstimuli of sugar.
This is just one of many harmful superstimuli roaming around our world today.
We are deeply social creatures. We have been this way for millions of years.
We are evolved to live in tribes of roughly 150 people. In our tribes it was beneficial for us to know what other members of our tribe were up to.
It was necessary to know who was sleeping with who, to maintain social harmony within the tribe. After all, not being in sync with the social harmony of the tribe could result in abandonment. Abandonment from your tribe was almost certain death.
So we have a strong natural instinct to know what other people are doing. And this is especially true for women.
Here’s the evolutionary mismatch:
In our tribes, we would have spoken to each other at various times throughout the day to find out the latest of what was happening in the tribe.
On social media, it’s available 24/7. We can see what everyone is doing all the time. Our instinct for social cohesion is switched into 6th gear as we scroll our newsfeeds checking what our friends are doing every single day.
Social media is a superstimuli our brains are not evolved for. Our brains are made to be social with our tribe. So when we have constant access to our friends, we can’t help but get hooked on it.
Everyone knows social media accounts only show the best parts of someone’s life. The problem is, our subconscious brain doesn’t understand this. Our brain isn’t evolved for social media pages. It’s not even evolved for photographs.
When our brains see a stream images of our friends looking perfect in their social media pages, the older subconscious part of the brain believes that every member of our tribe is incredible good-looking and successful.
And that’s why spending too much time scrolling the Facebook newsfeed makes you depressed.
With all of the new media available, television is forgotten. The simple television is almost Old-fashioned. But people still watch TV in massive numbers.
The television is in your living room. It’s in everybody’s living room. It’s so pervasive that you probably never thought twice about it.
Humans have a basic instinct to pay attention when we notice any novel stimulus in our environment such as movement or sound.
Russian neurologist Ivan Pavlov called this reflex the “orienting response”.
The orienting response evolved to help us spot predators and prey. When the orienting response is activated we turn our eyes and ears in the direction of the stimulus and freeze.
This is a response we share with animals. You’ve probably seen animals act this way before.
Here’s the evolutionary mismatch
Television is full of pans, cuts and zooms. New characters are introduced. There are sudden noises. Dramatic events occur. Characters shout. Characters laugh.
All of these stimulus activate our orienting response.
Which means we can’t help but face the television and pay attention to it
Have you ever had a conversation with somebody while the television is on in the same room? It’s almost impossible not to periodically glance at the TV screen.
Even if it’s a programme you’re not remotely interested in.
By the age of 6 months, babies begin having the orienting response to television screens.
A television show contains countless stimulus, one after another, each of which activate our orienting response. Following this bombardment of stimulus the viewer displays a strange mix of high and low attention.
The body is still and the eyes are focused on the TV. But levels of learning and memory drop.
And after the TV is turned off many people feel as though the TV has somehow sucked out all of their energy. They are often in a worse mood than they were before they started watching.
It’s also possible that watching stimulus on TV makes you less likely to seek out this stimulus in real life.
Most people prefer to watch other people play sport than do it themselves.
Many people like to watch football every Saturday and enthusiastically cheer on their team through the TV screen. Essentially what they’re doing is living vicariously through younger, fitter men instead of seeking out the stimulus themselves.
Wouldn’t it be more fun to actually play football in the real world?
People prefer to sit passively safe in their living rooms pretending they’re the ones playing.
Our subconscious brain was evolved for an environment in which TV didn’t exist. So our subconscious brain actually thinks we’re the ones playing football. But we’re not.
We’re sat still on our sofas shouting in the direction of a glass box at players who don’t even know that we exist.
The superstimuli of television stops us from living our lives to their fullest.
We are less likely to seek out exciting stimulus in the real world when we can simply switch on the television.
normalisation of superstimuli
Junk food. Porn. Television. Social Media. Video games.
These things are all normal.
And yet when you take a step back and look at them closely, they’re not normal at all.
Human beings have been around for millions of years. These things are all less than 100 years old.
You might be reading this article now and realising that these superstimuli are actually quite strange.
But after you finish this article and head back into the world, they will begin to feel normal again.
And you will forget once again how strange they are.
The psychological effect of normalisation has it’s effect on you every single time you see somebody else using one of these superstimuli.
western society has normalised superstimuli
Every corner store has piles of junk food at the checkout. Porn is all over the internet. Every household has a TV in the living room. Everybody is on social media. Most men under 30 years old have a games console.
If you walk down the street drinking a can of Coke people won’t think anything of it. But if you walk down the street eating a cucumber people will think you’re a werido.
If you don’t have a social media account, you’re a werido.
If you don’t have a TV in your house, you’re a werido.
Superstimuli are pervasive.
But more importantly, we see other people using them all the time.
And when we see other people doing something, we assume it must be normal.
But you have to wonder..
Is it normal that one third of Americans are clinically obese?
Is it normal that a majority of men masturbate to digital images of sex more than real sex?
Is it normal that Americans are spending an average of five hours a day sat still staring at the glass box in the corner of the room?
You can be the judge.
Living in a world of superstimuli
The world is a minefield of superstimuli trying to steal your time and money.
Superstimuli that your biological instincts are fatally attracted to.
And it could be the case that these superstimuli are the main obstacles preventing you from living a happy and fulfilled life.
It can sometimes seem impossible to avoid these superstimuli. If all of my evolved instincts are telling me to eat another slice of chocolate cake, how can I possibly hope to resist it?
Well, if you were a dog, you wouldn’t stand a chance of resisting. But luckily, we’re human.
And us humans have a secret weapon: Giant brains.
We have the ability to go against our reflexive instincts.
It’s not anti-hedonistic.
Because people who compulsively consume these things are not happier than those who don’t.
So how do we use our giant brains to combat these superstimuli that surround us?
Follow these 3 steps:
Retrain pleasure response
Don’t allow the superstimuli that surround you to be normalised in your mind.
Once they’re normalised they blend into the background and you lose the ability to avoid them.
The hardest part is remembering that superstimuli are not normal when everybody else is using them without any issue.
Plenty of people around you are drinking Coca-Cola and stuffing their faces with junk food without a second thought. You may begin once again to think this is normal. But having a sugar addiction is not ok.
The reason so many people seem to have no problem with eating sugar filled junk food is because they’re barely aware that there is any problem with doing so. Sure, people “know” they shouldn’t eat junk food. But their actions suggest that they don’t really KNOW. They only “know” on a surface level.
So you need to identify the superstimuli that surround you on a daily basis. The video games. The porn. The junk food. The social media newsfeeds.
Become truly aware of these irresistible stimuli.
Now that you’ve identified them, it’s time to actively avoid them.
100% avoidance isn’t realistic (Unless you want to go and live in the mountains). So you will have to make compromises with some of them.
But if you are going to engage with these superstimuli
Be aware of their incredible capacity to suck you in.
Understand that when you’re using superstimuli, you’re playing with fire.
Think I’m exaggerating? Consider the following:
Millions of millenials are wasting their youth scrolling through social media newsfeeds.
Millions of people are compulsively eating sugar every day of their lives. This leads them to gain weight. Age faster. Develop type 2 diabetes. And increase their risk of cancer.
People waste almost all of their free time watching television. (That includes Netflix)
People habitually watch porn at the expense of their real dating lives.
You think you can just eat one chocolate? You’re just going to watch one porn video? You’re just going watch one more episode on Netflix? You’re just going to check Facebook for 2 minutes?
Don’t underestimate superstimuli. Respect their power and keep your distance.
re-train pleasure response
Our pleasure mechanism is suprisingly flexible. You might think to yourself how can I possibly stop eating junk food. I love junk food!
But the pleasure mechanism will respond to what it’s TOLD to respond to.
It all depends on your habits.
People get pleasure from what they’re used to getting pleasure from
Either you get pleasure from eating a slice of chocolate cake or you get pleasure from eating healthy and nutritious foods. (You can get pleasure eating healthy foods. A different kind of pleasure.)
Either you get pleasure spending by 4 hours watching television or by spending an hour in the gym.
Either you get pleasure from stalking your friends on social media or by finishing a book.
If you’re getting pleasure from more healthy and productive habits the superstimuli are far easier to avoid.
Don’t let the modern world ruin your life.
This article is based on the book Supernormal Stimuli: How Primal Urges Overan Their Evolutionary Purpose: https://amzn.to/2EhfqeC