In New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, Winifred Gallagher writes:
[O]ur fast-paced world invites us to see ourselves in yet another light—this time as nature’s virtuosos of change, who are biologically as well as psychologically primed to engage with novelty.
Our ability to respond to the new and different is part of what makes us human. We’re simply more interested in whatever is outside of that status quo. Generally, this interest serves us well. In an evolutionary context it has likely saved us from extinction several times.
While our affinity for seeking the new offered an advantage in a world without the Internet, it has never been tested in a world like today. The pace of information generation is crazy.
Gallagher fears the consequences of failing to become more discerning about our consumption.
To survive, you must be aroused by the new and different. To be efficient and productive, however, you must focus your finite mental energy and attention on those novel sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that somehow matter and screen out the rest. Just as arousal alerts and orients you to new things, the complementary process of adaptation helps you filter out the unimportant ones.
Neophilia arises from the dual dynamic of seeking out something new and then getting used to it, which frees “and perhaps even spurs [us] to search for the next stimulus.” Put differently, neophilia is our affinity to novelty.
We’re attracted to the new and novel, often at the expense of “old” and status quo. We gravitate towards narratively sexy stories (derived from theories based on very little data) at the cost of knowledge.
“Like most behavior, neophilia occurs on a spectrum,” she writes. Our ability to survive and thrive derived from balancing “the sometimes conflicting needs to avoid risk and approach rewards.”
We’ve been programed by evolution to think that vital information is likely to come from the new or unfamiliar. All living creatures do this to some extent.
A swerving car on the highway, a jump in your bad cholesterol, or a drop in a stock’s value rivets your attention and jangles your nerves, which prime you to protect yourself from harm.
Other things like an exciting IPO or the new coffee shop that just opened lure us in as well. They are new and unknown.
Dodging risks and seeking rewards both make good evolutionary sense, but variations in nature and nurture incline individuals to prioritize them differently.
Some of us are more risk taking than others. Most of us want “to be neither scared stiff by too much novelty and change nor bored by too little.”
To balance our risk tolerance and our need for security, we generally seek the new and different in our “intellectual, creative, and recreational pursuits than in domains that require continuity and familiarity, such as … close relationships or professional commitments.”
In other words, we follow Alexander Pope’s advice: “Be not the first by whom the new are tried, nor yet the last to lay the old aside.”
While not necessarily important to individual success, the extremes are important to the success of the group as a whole.
Nature promotes a species’ survival and flexibility by ensuring diversity within a population, not an individual. Whatever the costs for a particular person …
Some of us live fast and die young. By experimenting and exploring, these people push the envelope for the rest of us. The cautious among us, the other extreme, “might have avoided a major recession.”
Wherever you sit on the spectrum, you can more skillfully consider your response to novelty and change.
Our mental and physical environment helps shape our attitudes to novelty and change.
Like individuals, societies struggle to balance the need to survive, which prioritizes safety and stability, with the desire to thrive, which requires stimulation and exploration. For most of history, this tug-of-war has inclined cultural change, like the biological sort, to occur not in a smooth progression but in an uneven, unpredictable process, of fits and starts that scientists call punctuated equilibrium. Something new, whether climate change, an important tool such as the plow or computer, or a political upheaval, prompts a period of innovation that takes a society to the next level. Like the Pax Romana, this stable plateau can last for a great while until, perhaps following an era of decline like the Dark Ages, there’s another leap forward, as in the Renaissance.
We are now in the age of information obesity.
At this point in our warp-speed information age, our well-being demands that we understand and control our neophilia lest it control us. We already crunch four times more data — e-mail, tweets, searches, music, video, and traditional media — than we did just thirty years ago, and this deluge shows no signs of slackening. To thrive amid unprecedented amounts of novelty, we must shift from being mere seekers of the new to being connoisseurs of it.
Information is abundant today and access is near frictionless. Novelty abounds. Gallagher calls this “a mental version of the perfect storm.”
We feel as if consuming more information makes us better off. Yet when the information we consume is novel, we lose track of what’s important.
Novelty is non-linear in dosage. What is good in small quantities is horrible in large quantities. In small doses the side effects are manageable. In large doses they take over.
It becomes harder to distinguish signal from noise.
In the past, our consumption of information contained a much higher ratio of signal to noise.
As the difficulty to create, disseminate, and consume information reduced, the amount of noise increased at a pace that signal couldn’t match. The signal is still there but now more than ever, it’s getting lost in the noise.
We’re also confusing information for knowledge. And we’re psychologically wired to over-react to information (novelty and noise). One consequence is that we lose sight of meaning.
Is it our ability to selectively focus on what’s important that’s helped us adapt? If noise is easy to produce and the demand to produce it is unrelenting, does this place more importance on our information consumption habits? What role does the filter bubble play?