Sugar, sex, and the supernormal

Following my piece a few months back on the phenomenon of concentration – the great invisible force shaping pretty much everything right now – I wanted to do another similar piece on a different macro-trend.

The purpose of such pieces, which of course aren’t strategy how-to guides like some others, is to give you a grasp of the soup we are swimming in (at least as I see it).  This is crucial, since all ideas and plans we might have a need to be acutely sensitive to context.  For example, when I talk about business, I often use the terms “the value you offer the market” and “the value you offer the world” interchangeably.  This is because they are interchangeable.  Focusing on the market or category can be helpful because it gives you a digestible starting point, but ultimately the true category anything exists in is life at large.  And therefore, it helps to know what’s going on in it – and this one’s a biggie.

The idea is that of supernormal stimuli.

Supernormal stimuli are essentially artificially intensified versions of natural stimuli, which we consume and in doing so make ourselves “immune” to the effects of the natural.  For a simple example consider the following: if you eat a Mars bar every day then strawberries will cease to taste sweet to you.  The Mars bar represents a supernormal dose of sugar – far more than would be accessible in a natural context – and thus it sets your expectations of sweetness artificially high.  So much so that old norms sweetness cease to be sweet at all.  On the flip side if you never ate any refined sugar the opposite would be true: strawberries would taste very sweet indeed.

One high-profile example of supernormal stimulus which most people these days have cottoned onto is pornography.  Porn is of course a supernormal version of sex, and is engineered to elicit highly concentrated doses of titillation.  As a result, porn addicts – just like sugar addicts or any other form of addict I suppose – are constantly chasing ever more specific and rarified hits of stimulation in order to remain satisfied.  This has resulted in an epidemic that parallels that of obesity, only this time in sexual dysfunction.  Reportedly real sex is no longer hitting the spot for a great number of young men who have been raised with on-tap access to pornography – resulting in negative side effects ranging from performance issues to alarming stories of violence and degradation towards women being carried from the internet into real-life sexual encounters.

In the case of both sugar and sex, supernormality is broadly understood and well documented.  The point I want to make in this piece is that today everything is becoming supernormalised; and that it’s a pattern that has become both a blueprint for business success and a roadmap to where we are going.  For better and (let’s face it) worse.

Taken in the abstract, the pattern looks something like this:

Each year new businesses are finding ways to supernormalise different parts of everyday life.  Because human beings find the supernormal irresistible – it’s something they like, but now offered in boundless form – these businesses become phenomenally successful.  I would venture that the majority of “unicorns” are in the supernormalisation game either directly or indirectly.  Almost invariably supernormal products are tech-based, since the defining feature of the internet is the removal of boundaries and constraints.  This means that people need to “plug in” to access these rewards, and in doing so gradually retreat from the “real life” which houses the old-fashioned “non-super” stimuli.

In summary:

  1. Normal stimuli exists in the real world
  2. Supernormal stimuli is accessible online
  3. People are drawn into the online world by the supernormal
  4. And in doing so withdraw from the real world, as well as finding it increasingly boring and unsatisfying

Now I expect you might be a little bit sceptical of how pervasive I suggest this trend to be.  Sure, we can all picture in our mind the stereotypical young male dropout, existing purely in a world of gaming, internet forums, and porn.  In the US they’re sometimes called “incels”; in Japan sometimes “grass eating boys”.  But most of us aren’t like that.  Most of us resist such supernormal traps, right?

At the acute end of the spectrum perhaps this is true.  But the issue here is that we don’t recognise how many of the innovations we believe are “good” and “normal” are themselves in fact supernormal.

To take a single example, think about podcasts.  At first glance, they seem to be uncontroversial, and all upside.  Quality information, available anywhere, often educational and mind-expanding.  All this is true.  However, the thing about the supernormal is that it is its very quality and goodness which presents a danger.  Podcasts are to conversation what Mars bars are to strawberries: their very richness and ubiquity recalibrate our expectations of the real world, in a manner it often can’t live up to.  Let’s face it, when chatting with the average person 80% of what they say is totally banal – small talk, how’s the kids, awkward silences etc.  Podcasts (not to mention audiobooks, Twitter, etc.) have none of that.  It’s all killer no filler.  Better still, you don’t have to lift a finger.  You don’t have to participate, just consume – any time, anywhere, totally on your terms.

No wonder the image of the couple having dinner both glued to their phones has become a cliché.  The phones are genuinely more interesting than the other person.  Not purely because of nefarious manipulation on behalf of the social media companies, but because they truly give you more of what you want.  They’re not powerful because they’re “bad”.  It’s not a trick.  They’re powerful because they’re good.  Too good.

Rich content which is more interesting than another person has been around for a long time of course – in the form of books, theatre, and latterly TV.  However, like all non-super stimuli these were highly bounded in terms of logistics and accessibility.  The options at any given moment were limited, and typically only available in a particular place.  They were mildly super-normal, no question, but not enough to throw shade on the real world.  You could’t live in them – hence perhaps why TV is now seen as a relatively wholesome pastime for kids.  Eventually they’ll get bored and do something else.

Supernormal stimuli on the other hand removes friction.  It combines intensity with ubiquity and ease: a potent combination.

Let’s look elsewhere: the world of dating.  App based dating has become so ubiquitous that some now consider it faux pas to ask someone out in person.  Little wonder since – in true supernormal style – it simultaneously increases the volume of what you want (options) whilst removing the limiting factors (logistics and, more importantly, fear of rejection).  One of the more widely understood consequences of this is of course the erosion of long term commitment.  A more recent and more peculiar development that some users have reported is an increased volume of people who are happy to chat but never meet up.  The chase is apparently more stimulating than the payoff – particularly, perhaps, when you have pornography to deal with that side of the equation.

This analysis wouldn’t be complete if we didn’t fold the timely advent of Covid into the equation.

People like to debate the effectiveness of lockdown restrictions, but the one achievement we can all agree on is the way they’ve accelerated our adoption of digital services.  Items which we’d previously never have thought of buying on Amazon we now order habitually.  Prime has fulfilled its destiny as the supernormal model of delivery.  “Ordinary” delivery times and fees – or indeed the inconvenience of fetching items for ourselves – have now been rendered not only irritating but unacceptable.  Services like Deliveroo have supernormalised the restaurant industry.  Who needs to trek 45 minutes to a bistro to have stilted conversation with a friend when the very same food can come to you in 20 minutes, to be enjoyed with your favourite Netflix show / podcast / YouTube channel / social feed?

I wasn’t remotely surprised the other day to see the emergence of the new grocery delivery app wars – promising to get your items to you faster than you can go out and get them yourselves.  Slowly but surely the few remaining reasons we have to engage with the non-super world are being chiselled away; even if it’s simply popping to the corner shop for a Cornetto and a scratch card.

(I won’t even bore you with the whole Zoom / working from home revolution – it’s too obvious an example to warrant even a mention).

How do you know if you’re becoming supernormalised?  You feel it, quite distinctly.  When someone invites you to dinner – or worse still, a birthday party – do you ever feel a slight pang of duty?  Sure, you’ll do it, old social mores are still clinging on – but secretly you’d just rather stay in.

You personally may not feel this, but certainly many do.  In 2019 an unbelievable 22% of millennials reported having no friends.  Zero.  Not something deliberate of course, but something which is becoming increasingly “easy” to achieve, or slip into, without realising it’s happening.  Doubtless too you’ve read the various reports of the significant minority of people who don’t want lockdown restrictions to end, ever, or who are enjoying being released from their social obligations.  Naturally, there are various causes for this – but it’s pretty clear that a major contributing factor is the irresistibility of the supernormal life.  Everything you want, better, faster, and in higher volume than ever before, all accessible without exertion or risk.  Old life can back off thanks very much.

The picture being painted here is one that makes the 1999 movie The Matrix seem highly prescient.  In its dystopian future, machines grow humans for batteries to power their tech superstructure.  In “exchange” the humans are plugged into the matrix: a simulation of the real world prior to the machine revolution.  Where it went wrong of course was in painting the ordinary world of non-super stimuli as the fantasy to which we’d be connected.  They didn’t anticipate that soon we’d have access to something much more intoxicating.  However where it was right was in its portrayal of a future where the real might be somehow inferior to the fake: making it increasingly difficult to tell which you’d rather live in.

Still, even if supernormalisation continues marching on, hopefully the result will be a little more soft and subtle than such sci-fi nightmares.  After all most of us don’t even realise it’s going on even though (as I’ve hopefully demonstrated) it is.

The strategic utility of understanding this pattern is threefold:

  1. Most plainly, if you understand supernormal stimuli, then you have a pretty strong model for making money.  Sure, much of the low-hanging fruit has been picked – but as can be seen with the instant groceries model, there is always a benign real-world situation vulnerable to super stimulating.  A few short years ago we were happy with the status quo of all these things; it is only once we’ve tasted alternative that we struggle to go back.  Of course, there are ethical dilemmas with all supernormal ideas – I’m not convinced that any of them are net positives in a socio-historical sense.  But nonetheless, that’s the way the current is flowing, so if you swim with it, and design things to connect with our increasingly insular “plugged in” futures, you can’t go too far wrong.  (Knowingly or not this is what the avalanche of DTC brands are currently doing).
  2. Secondly, you always have the reverse option: to stand in opposition.  Gradually the penny will drop on the negative consequences of many of these things – as it has more or less already with sugar and sex.  This means that there are a huge number of underreported social issues to push against.  Any movement, any media, and any brand profits massively from the presence of an enemy.  The things people particularly remember almost always take an antagonistic stance.  And in the rise of the supernormal, there are enemies everywhere – so take aim, and take your shot.
  3. Finally, as I said at the outset, to effectively strategise you don’t need to know the “facts” of the world, so much as the dynamics.  The system of feedback loops and incentives which are driving things, mostly unwittingly, in certain directions.  Nobody is masterminding this process; this is nobody’s idea of an optimal future.  It’s simply a wheel that’s been put in motion by particular technological capabilities coupled with natural human impulses.  Spot such wheels, and you can spot strategies.

As with the concentration trend, I would anticipate an eventual re-balancing, as nothing can go on intensifying forever.  But I feel we’re some way from that at the moment.  So until then this is playing field; let’s get out there and play ball.

Get weekly articles that will enable you to see things others don’t. 

Connect with Alex on Linkedin for daily ideas and discussion


Thank You

Check your inbox for your first mail.