New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change

Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change

by SHANE PARRISH

Need for Novelty

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

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.”

Evolution

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.”

Extremes

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.

Environment

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.

Information Obesity

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.

Incomplete Thoughts

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 doesthe filter bubble play?

New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change [Bargain Price] [Hardcover]

Winifred Gallagher (Author)

Book Description

Release date: December 29, 2011

Why are we attuned to the latest headline, diet craze, smartphone, fashion statement?  Why do we relish a change of scene, eye attractive strangers, develop new interests?  

How did Homo sapiens survive near-extinction during an environmental crisis 80,000 years ago, while close cousins very like us have died out?

Why is your characteristic reaction to novelty and change the key to your whole personality?

Why do we enjoy inexpensive pleasures, like fresh flowers or great chocolate, more than costly comforts, like cars or  appliances?

How can a species genetically geared to engage with novelty cope in a world that increasingly bombards us with it?

Follow a crawling baby around and you’ll see that right from the beginning, nothing excites us more than something new and different. Our unique human brains are biologically primed to engage with and even generate novelty, from our ancestors’ first bow and arrow to the latest tablet computer. This “neophilia” has enabled us to thrive in a world of cataclysmic change, but now, we confront an unprecedented deluge of new things, from products to information, which has quadrupled in the past 30 years and shows no sign of slowing. To prevent our great strength from becoming a weakness in today’s fast-paced world, we must re-connect with neophilia’s grand evolutionary purpose: to help us learn, create, and adapt to new things that have real value and dismiss the rest as distractions.

In New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change, Winifred Gallagher, acclaimed behavioral science writer and author of Rapt, takes us to the cutting-edge laboratories and ancient archeological sites where scientists explore our special affinity for novelty and change. Although no other species can rival our capacity to explore and experiment with the new, we individuals vary in how we balance the conflicting needs to avoid risk and approach rewards. Most of us are moderate “neophiles,” but some 15 per cent of us are die-hard “neophiliacs,” who have an innate passion for new experiences, and another 15 per cent are cautious “neophobes,” who try to steer clear of them—a 1-5-1 ratio that benefits the group’s well-being. Wherever you sit on the continuum, New shows you how to use this special human gift to navigate more skillfully  through our rapidly changing world by focusing on the new things that really matter.

Editorial Reviews

Review

“A bright look at our fascination with the new and different. Gallagher (Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, 2009, etc.) examines how we deal with the ever-increasing amount of novelty and rate of change in our lives. … Gallagher points to the age-old remedy of moderation and notes neophilia will undoubtedly prove valuable in a future where the only certainly is constant change. Engaging and cautionary.”

(KIRKUS REVIEWS )

“It’s difficult to categorize Gallagher’s exuberant survey through so many areas of interest, but she proves her point: curiosity about and hunger for the new can certainly take you to many fascinating places.”

(BOOKLIST )

“An accessible, well-researched work that crosses a variety of disciplines and will satisfy scientifically curious readers. It will appeal to those who enjoy Stephen Jay Gould and Oliver Sacks.”

(LIBRARY JOURNAL )

About the Author

Winifred Gallagher’s books include Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, House Thinking, Just the Way You Are (a New York Times Notable Book), Working on God, and The Power of Place. She has written for numerous publications, such as Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. She lives in Manhattan and Dubois, Wyoming.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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