Our instincts for food, sex and protection from enemies are rooted in the evolution of our ancestors from the savannah. There they were essential for survival. In today’s world of densely populated cities and technological innovations, we are always presented with stimuli that appeal to these instincts but go beyond the norm. We have developed and evaluated a psychometric scale that can make a significant contribution to the empirical investigation of preferences for super-normal and natural stimuli in media use.

Sweets, alcohol, cosmetics, media, cigarettes – animal biologists such as Tinbergen (1989) have coined the term “supernormal stimuli” to describe stimuli that appeal more to deep-seated instincts than those that actually occur naturally. Popular examples of supernormal stimuli are extreme forms of the childhood scheme in the media, fatty and salty foods, and extraordinarily exciting narratives (Barrett, 2010).
Evolutionary psychologists postulate that supernormal stimuli can make a decisive contribution to today’s problems in society, such as obesity or war (Barrett, 2010).


The outdated scale

Goodwin, Browne, & Rockloff (2015) have developed an Anticipatory Pleasure Scale that represents both supernatural and natural classes of reward stimuli. We have taken up this scale and expanded it with media-related variables. The theoretical background for this is provided primarily by the works of Tinbergen (1989), Barrett (2010), Goodwin et al. (2015) and a large number of other studies.


The explorative journey

In an initial survey phase (41 items, N = 125, of which 86 were women, 38 men, age M = 25.56 years), we revised and refined the variables gender-specific and media-specific. Based on this, in a second survey phase (N = 119, of which 69 were women, 50 men, age M = 27.24 years) the remaining 38 items were further reduced with the explorative factor analysis. This suggested – in accordance with our theoretical findings – a supernormal subscale (11 items, Cronbach’s α = .85) and a natural subscale (10 items, Cronbach’s α = .74).


The present scale can thus make a significant contribution to the investigation of the preferences of supernormal and natural stimuli.

  • To cite this study

    Will, J., Donnermann, M., Volk, P., Roder, M., Adler, D., & Schwab, F. (2017, March). Development of a new scale for measuring preference for supernormal over natural stimuli in media context. Poster to be presented at the 17th annual conference of the MVE-Liste – Menschliches Verhalten in Evolutionärer Perspektive, University of Ulm, Germany. https://doi.org/10.13140/RG.2.2.17642.52162


Barrett, D. (2010). Supernormal stimuli: how primal urges overran their evolutionary purpose (1st ed). New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Goodwin, B. C., Browne, M., & Rockloff, M. (2015). Measuring Preference for Supernormal Over Natural Rewards: A Two-Dimensional Anticipatory Pleasure Scale. Evolutionary Psychology, 13(4). https://doi.org/10.1177/1474704915613914

Tinbergen, N. (1989). Watching and wondering. Studying Animal Behavior: Autobiographies of the Founders, 431–463.