On seeking newness

I did something new recently. When I found a blog I liked, instead of adding it to my Favorites folder, I clicked on “Follow” so that I would get new posts by email. At least I thought that was the way it would work – I didn’t get my first update until day before yesterday, a couple of weeks after I had found and followed it.

The post is about neophilia, which is itself a relatively new word (at first glance I thought it said necrophilia, which is something quite different). According to Merriam-Webster the word was first used in 1932, but I don’t recall having seen it before. Now that the New York Times has published an article about a recent book on our need for newness and change, however, I imagine we’ll be seeing more of it.

I have to agree with the blogger Ugotitwrong that the support given for calling novelty-seeking “the quintessential human survival skill” is weak. The pace of change throughout most of human history has been very slow, compared to recent decades. Obviously innovation took place, but it’s pure conjecture to say that the people with the strongest desire for novelty moved it forward, while more cautious people kept change from happening too fast.

I can as easily imagine a “neophiliac” eagerly trying a new type of berry or mushroom and getting poisoned, while the more cautious “neophobe” observed and learned what not to eat. Without knowing what genes influence this behavior, and what other behaviors or traits they affect, we can’t do more than guess how novelty-seeking affected survival.

There’s no question that novelty appeals to people, especially the young. Just about any parent can tell you how much children like getting new things. It doesn’t seem to matter how poor the quality of design or construction of the toy (think of the ones that come in fast food meals for kids), the children crave them and are delighted to get new ones. And then they are soon abandoned and requests begin for another new toy.

I found it interesting that, even in the case of my younger son, who has mild autism, he also always wanted new toys. People with autism generally crave routine and familiarity, and in general my son is no except to that. Changing his schedule unexpectedly is never a good idea. But he likes getting new toys, new books, new movies.

I found a hint to the explanation for this in Temple Grandin’s book Animals in Translation. As she also explains in this article, animals – and children with autism – generally dislike new experiences, but will seek out new things as long as they can do it voluntarily, rather than having the new object pushed on them.

It seems very reasonable to me to distinguish between a liking for new things and new experiences. New things pose little risk, much of the time. New experiences usually include a great deal of uncertainty, if not actual risk.

I like trying new foods – as long as someone else cooks them. If I have to cook a new food, it had better be pretty easy. (Otherwise if I dislike it, it’s as likely to be because it was not prepared well as because I don’t like the food itself.) When I lived in Spain as a college student, I was among a minority of Americans there who enjoyed horchata, tripe, and blood sausage.

On the rare occasions that I go to a restaurant, I like to pick the day’s special because it it likely to be something new (plus it saves me the trouble of studying the menu and having to decide among so many choices). Yesterday some friends took us out for dinner, at our favorite Mexican restaurant. I chose Pollo a la Veracruzana (Veracruz-style chicken) in part because I knew I hadn’t ordered it before and didn’t know what it would be like. (It was delicious.)

I like reading new books – I very rarely reread anything. I rarely watch movies I have seen before, and then only because someone in my family wants to see one again (or because the others want to watch something, and we don’t have ideas on anything new that is worth renting). I like a job with plenty of variety. I hate sitting at my computer doing the same thing by the hour.

If money were not an issue, I would love to take vacations to lots of new places. I would try out new computer games, and perhaps try different styles of dress. I try new routes when driving around the area to learn my way around. (Away from home or when time is an issue, I use mapquest to be sure I get where I’m going and on time.) I try different ways of doing things on the computer.

But I am definitely risk-averse. I tried the quiz linked to from the NYT article and found out – with no surprise at all – that I would classified as Cautious. My idea of adventure is cooking a new food (I’m going to try making buckwheat bread this weekend) or going to an event where there will be a lot of people (I just bought tickets for a Trans-Siberian Orchestra concert next month).

I think the quiz measures the desire to take risks, though, more than the desire for newness. There is a sense in which any new activity carries some risk, but there is quite a difference between the risk of not enjoying a new food (an activity not included among the questions) and the danger involved in whitewater rafting.

It also seems not to distinguish between caution for ethical reasons (not going more than ten mph over the speed limit, not considering an illicit romance) and a preference for going to the same vacation spot each year. The person it describes as cautious is one who doesn’t like to make waves (waiting patiently in line at the store), more than one who avoids new experiences.

When we have a chance to take a vacation, we go to Gen Con in Indianapolis. (My husband is starting to save up to go in 2013.) Does that count is avoiding newness, because we go back to the same city and the same event? The event itself is full of newness – thousands of people walking around, some in very unusual costumes; new games and new vendors; role-playing games that will always include an element of newness because that’s the way such games are.

Scientists talk about something called the “seeking instinct.” Animals have it also, and it is apparently something that has a very strong pull on them, as well as on us. I had long wondered why I like going shopping, even if I don’t buy anything – something apparently common among women but a source of great annoyance to men. They have a seeking instinct also – they just express it in different ways, such as the computer role-playing games (seeking for treasure and for enemies to defeat) my husband enjoys so much.

Presumably some degree of seeking would be a survival trait, because one has to seek out food and shelter. I’m just not sure that a high degree of seeking would lead to higher survival rates than a low-to-moderate degree of seeking. Perhaps people (and animals) that have a high desire to seek out new things survive in spite of, and not because of it, because they also have other traits that make them good at surviving the situations that their seeking instinct gets them into.

In people, at least, while the desire for novelty may be genetic, the way the trait is expressed is highly influenced by environment, as the NYT article points out. Perhaps I would have grown up more adventurous if my mother had not been so fearful of so many things. On the other hand, perhaps I would have been less adventurous if I had not been consciously trying to act differently than she did.

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