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Is Pornography a Supernormal Stimuli? - 2023
Supernormal stimuli are those things which encourage us to do something that was historically very useful, but in an artificial and supercharged way. Think of the way junk food hacks our appetite.
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Back in 2017 I read a fascinating book review on my favorite blog, SlateStarCodex. Scott Alexander had reviewed The Hungry Brain, by Stephan J. Guyenet. His review intrigued me enough that I immediately bought the book and started reading it. If you’re interested in the neurology of eating, and why we overeat, I would definitely recommend it. That said, it is not primarily about how to lose weight, it’s more about the brain’s system for determining whether we’re full or not, and how the modern world has created an environment which overwhelms that system. As I said the book is very intriguing, particularly in the way that it rejects the idea of a balanced diet, but I’m not going to spend any time on that, instead I’d like to focus on a concept the book brings up, sort of just in passing, though at the same time it could be said to be the overarching theme of the book as well. It’s the concept of supernormal stimuli.
Guyenet introduces the subject by relating the findings of a study which had been conducted on the nesting habits of ringed plovers. The two scientists conducting the study discovered that the birds preferred exaggerated artificial eggs to their own eggs. Guyenet summarizes the results as follows:
A typical ringed plover egg is light brown with dark brown spots. When Koehler and Zagarus offered the birds artificial eggs that had a white background and larger, darker spots, they readily abandoned their own eggs in favor of the decoy. Similar experiments with oystercatchers and herring gulls showed that they prefer larger eggs, to the point where they will leave their own eggs in favor of absurdly large artificial eggs that exceed the size of their own bodies.
You can see why he introduces this topic in a book about overeating, particularly the ways in which the modern world has created, what might be called, supernormal food, but technology has not only changed the food we eat, it’s changed nearly everything about our lives when compared to those of our distant ancestors. And it’s those other changes that I want to examine.
The term “supernormal stimuli” was coined later by another scientist to describe stimuli like the absurdly large eggs, things which are better than anything found in nature, but which paradoxically produce worse outcomes. It’s obviously bad for the bird if they spend all of their time sitting on an artificial egg as big as themselves, rather than sitting on their own eggs.
As I said I’m more interested in looking at the role of the supernormal beyond the obvious areas of food and bird’s eggs, and Guyenet himself acknowledges the potentially wider application of the phenomenon:
It seems likely that certain human innovations, such as pornography, gambling, video games and junk foods are all supernormal stimuli for the human brain.
The whole concept is fascinating to me, and I can imagine all manner of things it might explain, for instance, Guyenet mentions pornography, and for people who’ve been listening to this podcast for awhile you know I have a deep distrust of the conventional wisdom on the subject of pornography, so let’s start there. How might it be, as Guyenet suggested, a supernormal stimuli?
Well first let’s step back and examine why there are supernormal stimuli in the first place. It all stems from the fact that certain things just don’t occur in nature, primarily because they’re impossible or at least extremely rare. Consequently there was never any evolutionary pressure to protect against these non existent things. As Guyenet points out in the book, in the case of food, there was never any danger of people regularly having 1000 calorie meals two or three times a day, 7 days a week for years on end. The food supply just wasn’t that stable. And thus the body has very little in the way of defense against gaining weight on that kind of diet. In a similar fashion there was never any danger of a bird abandoning her eggs for eggs as big as she was because she could never lay those eggs in the first place. Which is to say there’s no evolutionary backstop against this kind of thing. There’s no innate protection against going too far in the direction of abundance because, historically, perpetual abundance was impossible.
From an evolutionary perspective, the rule: “bigger or more is always better” worked because scientists were never sneaking into bird’s nests and putting in massive artificial eggs. Now it is true that cuckoo’s get other birds to raise their larger eggs using these preferences, and the book goes into detail on that, but that doesn’t make the situation any less problematic, it just shows that organisms can’t even fully protect against natural supernormal stimulation. And if it can’t, how much worse is it going to be at protecting against more potent artificial supernormal stimulation.
With this explanation in place I think the idea that pornography is a supernormal stimuli should be self evident. But if you remain unconvinced I’ll spell it out. In essence, “Life is a game of turning energy into kids”. Another quote in the book which Guyenet borrows from anthropologist Herman Pontzer. And, whereas over-eating is supernormal on the energy side of this game, pornography is supernormal on the kids side of the game. Just like birds have evolved to really want to sit on eggs, humans have evolved to really want to have sex, since both increase the number of surviving offspring they have. But just as birds will sit on large artificial eggs in preference to sitting on actual eggs, it’s very likely that humans will watch large amounts of artificial sex in preference to having actual sex.
There are of course arguments which could be made against this assertion. You could argue that humans are different from birds. This is undoubtedly true, but based on the enormous demand for pornography is there really any evidence that humans are any less stimulated when it comes to sex than birds are when it comes to sitting on eggs?
You might also argue that even if pornography has exactly the effect I described, it’s a good thing because we’re better off with fewer kids. Perhaps, but as I pointed out in a previous post most developed countries already have below replacement level fertility, and the generation of people raised on internet pornography is only just starting to hit peak child bearing age.1
Finally you might argue that watching people have sex is not the same as having sex. Once again that’s certainly true, but there is also some large segment of the population for whom it’s obviously close enough, and getting closer. Pornography is only getting more realistic, which means it’s potential as a supernormal stimuli is only going to increase.
The other day, I was taking a break and ended up watching a clip from the Conan O’Brien show where he was doing his “Clueless Gamer” segment. In this particular edition they had him playing a VR game on the Oculus Rift. In the segment, once he finds out that it’s a virtual reality game, literally the next thing out of his mouth is that VR is for sex. Now, I don’t think that Conan is personally longing for a world of VR sex, but there are lots of people out there who are. And given the prominence of pornography on the internet, can there be any argument that once technology gets to a certain point that pornography will be equally ubiquitous in virtual reality?
As I said, once this happens, and if past technological progress is any guide, virtual reality sex will become increasingly indistinguishable from the real thing. And any arguments about whether pornography is voyeuristic as opposed to participatory will become increasingly moot. When this happens perhaps there is some baseline level of morality which will kick in and taboos against VR sex will keep it from becoming widespread. But I’ve seen no reason to hope that this will be the case. Thus far modernity has done a remarkable and quite thorough job of knocking down taboos and side-lining nearly everything which resembles traditional morality. Which makes it very difficult for me to imagine that VR sex will be the one place where we finally hold the line.
As usual when discussing pornography there is the standard assembly of people who are ready to defend it, and VR pornography is no exception to this. Just a cursory search turns up the following article from TechCrunch which discusses worries about greater realism and where we are informed that:
Any worries about VR pornography being too realistic just mean that we need greater “porn literacy”.
That worries about VR pornography should be viewed in the same light as worries that bicycles would turn women into lesbians.
That “the fear of VR porn is simply more technophobia as we’ve seen so many times in the past.”
That being able to use VR to switch your own gender will allow people to “open up brave new dimensions to their own sexuality and sensuality.”
These are all bold predictions for a technology that’s barely in its infancy, And are they really going to put forth the argument that providing something virtually indistinguishable from actual sex is the same thing as bicycle riding and therefore any worries should be dismissed? This is where I think the framework of the supernormal stimuli really comes in handy. Worries about VR pornography map very well onto the analogy of the bird egg we started things with. VR pornography is replacing stimuli for some deep evolutionary drive with something artificially supercharged. In the example of the bikes, what deep evolutionary drive were they supposed to be stimulating? The need to go down hills fast? And what are bikes an artificial supercharged version of? Walking? In other words, once we’ve placed VR porn in the framework of supernormal stimuli, we can definitely dismiss some of the proposed defenses.
I have no problem granting that there has been technophobia in the past, which later proved to be ungrounded. One common example I hear frequently mentioned, was the fear that people would asphyxiate on the first trains because of their high speed (over 20 mph). And if it will make you feel better I have no problem admitting that this was an example of ungrounded technophobia, but if I’m going to admit this then I think it’s only fair, on the other side, for those pointing out past overreactions, to admit instances where fear of technology fell far short of reality. Previous to World War I lots of people worried about aerial bombardment but how many people worried about the carnage which could be inflicted by more advanced artillery and the machine gun? And for those who did fear aerial bombardment it turns out that they were just a little bit premature.
All of this is to say that yes, it is certainly possible that, as the article claims, worries about VR pornography are overblown, but, more likely, it appears that people who want to draw analogies between these worries and past instances of technophobia are missing important differences and further that not all previous instances of people being afraid of technology have ended up being groundless. Sometimes we have every reason to worry about technology, and we may in fact underestimate how bad it is. (Social media being a notable example of something that has turned out to be pretty bad, which we didn’t worry about at all.)
If opponents can’t rely on historical analogies to dismiss the idea that pornography and specifically VR pornography is a harmful supernormal stimuli, perhaps they can fall back on the data? Here I think the opponents continue to be on shaky ground. Though it’s hard to get a good sense of the data. Pornography is one of those very divisive issues where it’s hard to separate facts from opinion and anecdote, but one of the most common ideas I came across was to compare pornography to alcohol:
For some people alcohol simply has the effect of making them more relaxed, letting them have more fun. For other people it's true that alcohol can increase the likelihood that somebody will behave in a violent way.
"But if I simply make the overall generalisation alcohol causes violence or leads to violence, you'd probably say that's glossing over a lot of the nuances.
"Similarly with pornography, for some people, it may be viewed as a positive aspect of their life and does not lead them in any way to engage in any form of anti-social behavior. For some people who do have several other risk factors, it can add fuel to the fire.
Ok, so pornography is alcohol? As you can imagine this does nothing to make me feel better about things. First, as a Mormon, I’m also pretty opposed to alcohol. Second, notice that we’re not even talking about VR pornography which may be to normal pornography what opiates are to alcohol. Finally, if it is alcohol could we at least do a better job of keeping it away from kids? The few attempts at this which have been made have been dismissed as puritanical at worst and unworkable as best.
In the end the data has enough ambiguity that it will probably support whichever position you came in with (which is true for most things). But even if the data showed that pornography had a positive effect (which some people think it does). There would still be reasons to doubt that conclusion. We just haven’t been living with ubiquitous pornography for all that long. Video pornography has only been widely available on the internet for about 15 years. It may take a full generation or more before we begin to understand the impact. We’re thus in a situation, where on the one hand there’s not a lot of good experimental short-term data and it hasn’t been nearly long enough to have any idea of the societal impacts.
I had initially intended to use pornography as just one example of supernormal stimuli among many, but apparently I had more to say on the subject than I thought. Still it might be useful before we end to look at one more potential example of supernormal stimuli. I’ve already talked about virtual reality, and even though I worry that pornography will be a big part of that (some people estimate it will be the third largest category) the biggest use for VR will be video games. And incidentally video games are another thing mentioned by Guyenet, at the beginning of this post, as a potential supernormal stimuli.
This ties into many of the themes of this blog. For one, virtual reality might be a step in the direction of transhumanism, and as I am mostly opposed to transhumanism, this is one more thing to add to the list. Secondly there are some people who believe that Fermi’s Paradox can be explained by VR; that intelligent species get to a point where they have no need to explore or expand because they can simulate all the exploration (and anything else) they desire. And finally it gets back to the issue of community and struggle both of which, I would argue, video games provide a poor facsimile of.
Discussing video games brings up one of the symptoms of a supernormal stimuli, one which I haven’t discussed yet, but which could apply to pornography, food, and video games: addiction. I didn’t bring it up previously because people generally don’t talk in terms of an addiction to food (it’s hard to view something you need to live as a possible addiction) though if you read Guyenet’s book it’s easy to see how people with leptin deficiency might easily be classified as food addicts. People also dispute whether there’s such a thing as pornography addiction (though I don’t) and there’s plenty of harm attributed to pornography without bringing addiction into it, but when it comes to video games, addiction and excessive time spent, are generally viewed as the primary harm.
And as it turns out for all of these things, but perhaps especially for video games, the addiction is the primary evidence of their status as a supernormal stimuli. In our distant past there were figurative buttons which evolved to indicate a situation that was extremely advantageous from the standpoint of survival and reproduction. In nature these buttons were pressed infrequently and most of the time they were associated with tangible rewards. Technology has allowed us to find these buttons, and then mash them continually for as long as we want.
These buttons can convince us we’re doing something useful by giving us virtual rewards which feel real (also known as operant conditioning.) They can convince us we're actually struggling by overcoming fake challenges. And they can convince us that we’re engaged socially even though we’re just yelling at strangers. And this is the problem, with all of this, how do we know we’re not sitting on a giant fake egg, while the real eggs rot and spoil in the sun? How do we recognize these supernormal stimuli as traps and avoid them? When there are powerful inbuilt urges convincing us that twinkies are better than real food, pornography is better than real sex, and videogames are better than real life?
You may disagree with how bad any one of these things are, or how big of a problem they represent, or whether they are in fact examples of supernormal stimuli. But I don’t think you can argue with the existence of supernormal stimuli, nor with the motivation for people to use technology to continue turning up the dial on their power and effect. As I said in the very beginning, I think the concept of supernormal stimuli has wide-ranging applications and consequences for our modern world, and it’s definitely a subject I intend to revisit, because technology has gotten to the point where I believe there are all manner of supernormal creations and if we fail to recognize the “super” part of that equation, and continue to think that all of this is normal, the consequences could be much larger and much worse than we imagine.
I’m working on figuring out how to make my donation appeal a supernormal stimuli, but until then pretend that it is and imagine you experience the overwhelming desire to give me money.
In the years since I originally wrote this the demographic crisis has only grown more acute, and the role pornography in this crisis more apparent.