I remember Alan Fisher, Ph.D. who traced the early, fine networks of hunger and thirst paths in rat brains. He was quiet, detailed, modest, and shook his head a bit about the things coming from my mouth. I worked myself into meeting his standards. I remember passing the final defense of my dissertation vaguely; but the praise from him afterwards still glows bright, clear.
He taught physiological and comparative psychology in the graduate program at Pitt. Fisher loved comparative, introducing all of us to Tinbergen, Hess, and Lorenz, who were unfashionable for that time. Their work, a bit dry. My own mind had to slow to appreciate the detail needed, to appreciate an alternative view of life. Their careful dissection of fixed action patterns, innate releasing mechanisms, or territoriality seemed tedious beside a well-trained rat in a conditioning chamber, clattering the relays, warming up before a drug trial or before demonstrating some obscure functional relation (law of behavior).
In retrospect, ethology offered a lot, including studies that manipulated stimulus characteristics.. I remember reading of hatchling birds fixated on a spot on mother's bill, or egg size as a variable controlling parental behavior, or red spots inciting sticklebacks to action. The bird or fish varied their responses in a positive relationship to stimulus size. Thus, ethology gave us the concept of superoptimal stimuli, (1) artificial cues that approximated natural signals but were exaggerated in size or color. The target fish or bird reacted more intensely or for a greater duration when directed by super cues.(2,3)
There are superoptimal stimuli in Hunting & Gathering societies (like Manhattan) but integrated into cultural history. Large statues of Mao or Stalin likely instilled more fear than shorter ones. American culture has many such figures in politics and Hollywood. Jack Kennedy, Bill Gates, or Jack Benny have substantial impact on us with respect to attention, awe, and respect. Farrakan (Louie Walcott) manipulates this variable as does anyone who becomes President.
It's a jump, but not a large one, to think of our children getting their direction, bonding, comfort from Superoptimal Parents, also known as Power Rangers or Big Bird. These animated events may trigger the same Psych Adaptations that a natural mother does. I can't look at Mickey Mouse or Superman without thinking of large red spots on a fish belly.
As the computers get smarter, any advantages mom has may be overtaken. A current film, "The 5th Element," uses animation and cartoons interwoven with human actors. Computer simulation gives us Bruce Willis driving a real/cartoon cab through an exaggerated future Manhattan. Some of the bad guys are computer simulated dogs ("Man's Best Friend"). And the girl is a space alien, but a "perfect" woman sent to save life on this planet. It may be that the cartoons, whether Bart Simpson or Power Rangers, will be more effective for eliciting attention, imitation, and mood changes than humans. If Elmo functions as a superoptimal stimulus, he may also be a better teacher than Our Miss Brooks. Imagine a cartoon edition of Newhart or Fraser. (Will such a 'toon be so effective that it will require cartoon, superoptimal pathology to challenge its skills?)
1) Also called superoptimal releaser or supernormal stimulus
2) Superoptimal stimuli may have relevance to secondary sexual characteristics. Exaggerate male features have been attributed to female preferences. There has been a lot of writing about females mating for "good sense" or for "good taste" principles and the involvement of male advertising with female choices. "Good sense" implies that females use larger antlers or peacock tails to identify healthier males to sire, feed, and protect healthy children. "Good taste" suggests that females choose "handsome" males because the resulting sons will also have the same exaggerated features, be more likely to mate, and therefore, more likely to pass mom's genes to a third generation. A third analysis is that the more extreme the plumage, the healthier he must be, not only to develop the plumage but to escape from predators in spite of it. Bright feathers comprise a temporary survival handicap for the male but the genes that he carries get an edge on recruiting an egg for their own passage through time.
If exaggerated plumage is another example of superoptimal stimuli, it should carry an immediate mating advantage. For example, widowbird females are attracted to males with long tail feathers. Artificially lengthening the male tail feathers made them even more attractive than the even the most well-endowed, natural male. It could be that females of many species have evolved to pursue such amplified signals. It may be that more intense stimuli are more apt to exceed threshold requirements for eliciting mating sequences in females regardless of the correlated health of the male or the reproductive future of his sons.
The human outcome from this sociobiological rambling is that Dolly Parton or Arnold Swartzenegger make the same adaptive sense as larger gull eggs. And Dolly could likely be replaced for many of us by that lovely, blond animation in "Roger Rabbit."
3) "K selection" is a condition in which a stable environmental niche is nearly full. The species that occupies it produces fewer children, invests more in each child, and individual members are larger than before. It is contrasted with "r selection" in which the niche is relatively empty, many children are produced, and with very little parental investment. The slide from r to K could be associated with subtle effects from female preference for larger males through a bias towards superoptimal stimuli.