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Why We Are Attracted to Supernormal Stimuli

What are supernormal nonverbal cues?

Supernormal stimuli are exaggerations of normal behaviors, objects, or cues, and they function to attract and capture our attention. They represent things that occur in nature that attract our attention, but they are “oversized” or “supernormal.”

Let’s start with a simple example (and one that I wrote about previously). You may have noticed that stuffed animals, and even some dolls, are made with giant eyes—much larger than what would occur naturally. Our attraction to another’s eyes seems to be an inborn characteristic. Even newborns are attracted to eyes, regardless of whether they are on someone’s face, or simply drawn on a card. These giant-eyed stuffed toys are more attention-getting and more desirable to children than toys with normal-sized eyes.

What about giant teddy bears? At a Black Friday sale, I watched shoppers streaming out of the store with teddy bears nearly as big as the shopping cart they were riding in. How about the gigantic carnival prize stuffed animals on which players spend a fortune trying to win? Or, the fact that Easter Bunnies in the mall (and the Disney characters at the theme parks) are giant-sized creatures?

Are large eyes more attractive?
Source: Pexels

We are also naturally attracted to bright colors, or to things that feel soft. This attraction to supernormal stimuli is why advertisers often use bright colors in their ads, and why fabric makers strive to make comfy clothing and blankets that are super-soft.

OK, let’s talk about sex and sexual stimuli.

Large false eyelashes—much more exaggerated than those that normally grow—are common, as is mascara to lengthen lashes. Lips are enhanced and enlarged by lipstick (often in brighter-than-normal pinks and reds), or by “plumpers,” including injections.

And, of course, cues of sexual attraction—breasts, buttocks, and legs can be enhanced in appearance through clothing, or in the case of breast and butt implants, by plastic surgery. Men strive to increase penis size (or the appearance thereof).

We are also more attracted to supernormal foods. The bigger the apple, the orange, or the melon, the stronger the attraction. Do we want the normal-size serving of popcorn or candy at the movie theatre, or the “jumbo” “superlarge” version?

 Amanda Cottrell/Pexels
The bigger the food, the bigger the attraction!
Source: Amanda Cottrell/Pexels

Supernormal stimuli also applies to some exaggerated behaviors. For example, we talk about an actor giving a “big performance” or a celebrity as being “larger than life.” This is particularly true for humor. A comedian who exaggerates behaviors is typically seen as much more funny. Take comic Sebastian Maniscalco who uses exaggerated motions, sounds, and voice tone to make his stories funnier (watch his “doorbell” routine here).

So the next time you are enticed by that super-sized hamburger (and the enormous balloon-version of that hamburger atop the fast-food restaurant), realize that you are being drawn by the supernormal stimuli.


Morris, D. Manwatching. London: Elsevier (1977).

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