Fading Novelty
Last Updated: 2019-08-08 18:04

A core aspect of human experience is our pursuit of novelty. We might find this so obvious as to assume a priori. "Of course we look for newness!" you might say, "Why, that's a big part of being human!"

I don't disagree, of course. It does seem obvious that there's something tantalizing about chasing after that which is new. Correspondingly, it's not just that we like chasing after things which are new. We stop chasing after things which are old. And, with time, everything becomes old. We find ourselves, despite our best efforts to change things, back in a similar state of mind. In response, people will often say that "the novelty has faded", hence the title of this post.

Okay, but appealing to intuition isn't enough. For more concreteness, here are three everyday examples of fading novelty:

  1. Songs which sounded so entrancing upon the first few listenings become dull after being put on repeat. Today's pop hits are unlikely to be next year's top hits, as we grow accustomed to the same tune. Seemingly as a result, there is always much excitement when a band is releasing new music.
  2. Foods which were so delicious during the first few tastings become bland after being eaten day after day. "No, we had sushi yesterday. Let's go somewhere different." Such a sentiment is commonplace; we plan around the fact that our palate becomes adjusted to the same food.
  3. Clothes which looked so beautiful when initially worn fade into "just another outfit" after being worn over and over. Like the music industry, the fashion industry thrives off of being able to offer new goods every season.

When on this topic, it's easy to dive too deep and draw grand conclusions about the futility of desire, or the transience of pleasure, or the fleetingness of happiness. Before we get into any philosophizing at all, though, I want to look at why novelty fades at all in the first place.

First off, repetition dulls us; it's a trait many of us are just born with.

In psychology, this phenomenon whereby repeated exposure to a stimulus leads to a decreased response is typically referred to as satiation or habituation. This general pattern of a reduced response is quite ubiquitous across nature. For example, animals which leap into a prepared state upon hearing a loud noise soon grow to ignore it if the noise isn’t paired with actual danger. This sort of response can be thought of as a basic form of learning, helping us pay attention to the "right" things.

From a survival standpoint, a bias towards newness is reasonable. Things in our environment which did not change, e.g. trees, shrubs, or familiar tribe members, likely presented less of a threat than new additions, e.g. fresh tracks, gathering storm clouds, or a stranger in our midst. It's a little tongue-in-cheek, but here's what our thoughts might have looked like, had we not biased towards newness:

“Oh wow, that’s exciting! Look at that majestic tree! It looks just as good as it did yesterday! Those great branches, I could look at them day after day. Look at that lush grass! It’s so fluffy! Oh wow! Look at that tiger! That's exciting! It’s so— CRUNCH”

(Proceeds to get chomped on by the tiger.)

And we can't just pay attention to all the variables. Constantly taking note of everything in your environment is costly. Focusing on just what’s new is a way to optimize for our limited attention. From a natural selection standpoint, we can view it as a trait that's persisted so long because of its long-lasting usefulness. Yet, despite its beneficial roots, I think that fading novelty is also responsible for many of the difficulties we experience with self-improvement and learning.

First off, on the self-improvement side of things, I think fading novelty makes practicing rationality skills more difficult because it hampers habit creation and contributes to the illusion of understanding.

Consider the process of creating a new habit:

When starting a new regimen, be it a new diet, productivity app, or exercise, there is often an initial burst of success. We might have thoughts like:

“Yes, finally! This is the One True Thing that will work for me! Look at how well things have been going! This is effective in all the ways that previous Thing have not. This time, it’ll be different!”

Personally, I've thought things along these lines when switching up my productivity app of choice, from Google Keep to Workflowy to Google Drive to Dynalist to Evernote. Each time, despite a mounting history of evidence to the contrary ("What makes you think this one will work, if all the others didn't stick?"), I convince myself that I've found something that works.

And, to an extent, each time, I have. My enthusiasm is partially warranted. There often is a marked improvement in productivity—at least at first. Empowered by a shiny new interface and the prospect of venturing forth (once more) to create new notes/documents/mindmaps, I find it easy to get started. It's continuing the trend that becomes difficult.

Why might this be? I think that the initial excitement / effectiveness of switching something new has little to do with how much better the new thing is compared to the old thing. The real difference is the change itself—by swapping to something new, you're getting your brain more interested in the task at hand.

Now, I don’t mean to necessarily knock this initial burst of excitement. I’m glad that humans have the ability to jump-start new projects, and switching to something novel seems to be one of the easiest motivation hacks we have at our disposal. However, I think that this decay over time from our initial excitement is often not factored in when people start new regimens. The mountain of abandoned resolutions (New Year's or otherwise) lies testament to his.

This leads to an overall negative cycle where someone might try out a new rationality skill or productivity app, experience an initial surge of success, and then, after having become acclimated (whereupon excitement fades), give up too easily. This can lead someone to switch tactics constantly, never sticking with something long enough for it to become a habit. Taken to extremes, someone can become a "productivity junkie" where they’re compelled to seek out ever-more radical solutions simply because they’ve exhausted any potential excitement afforded by more “normal” or “obvious” interventions.

Where does learning fall into the picture? Cue someone reviewing a topic:

If someone reads the same textbook chapter over and over, the pages and words might start to look familiar. But this type of recognition, I claim, is not what we want. Here, fading novelty contributes to a sense of false understanding. In the same way that a song heard over and over becomes easy to recognize within a few bars, something analogous happens with concepts that we see over and over again.

The issue is that recognition can kick in a lot faster than actual comprehension, tricking us.

Our familiarity (i.e. lack of novelty) scales roughly proportionally with time— the longer we spend staring at something, the more familiar it seems. But our comprehension does not necessarily scale proportionally with time: We could spend 10 hours just highlighting keywords, but unless there was self-testing or active learning involved, the time was largely wasted.

Thus, subjects we try to learn might start to look familiar before we’ve actually mastered them, and this familiarity could be interpreted as understanding. Thus, when trying to review, we might think “This doesn’t seem new to me. Of course I already know this”, except that “know” has been substituted to mean one of the easier recognition-based checks for understanding rather than one of the harder actionable-based checks.

This is the difference between "Have I seen these equations before?" and "If I cover up this page, can I reproduce the proof myself?"

Being mindful of this distinction might look like:

“Huh. This looks familiar, but I don’t think I could have come up with this idea by myself, nor could I explain it to someone else. So even though it doesn't seem new, I think I need more review.”

However, this is not our default approach.

Here are some more examples where this dangerous substitution happens:

  1. If someone gives us advice, we’ll often ask ourselves “Have I heard similar advice before?” instead of “Could I act on this advice, and if so, what are some examples?”
  2. When studying, it's easier to ask "Have I spent X hours reviewing this material?" rather than "What can I summarize about what I've learned?"
  3. Similarly, when reading a book, it's easier to check "Have I read these words already?" instead of "Did these words give me ideas I hadn't considered before?"

Due to fading novelty, we interpret familiarity as recognition and make the fallacious leap towards equating this with comprehension. You can end up lulling yourself into a false sense of understanding, which in turn can hinder you from putting in more effort towards areas where you do in fact need improvement.

The aforementioned two areas, habit formation and learning, are both centered around the efforts of an individual and self-improvement. On a broader scale, too, I think similar issues manifest.

In the sciences, for example, there is often a larger focus on coming up with novel results than replicating previous studies. Similarly, I think this also part of why the rationality community has few good introductory texts; once you’re “in the know”, it might not feel very motivating to write down the intro stuff because it’s no longer new and hence no longer exciting.

I think interventions which aim to solve the issues I've outlined will either try to reduce the dulling caused by habituation or find another more invariant form of reinforcement to carry us through repetition after repetition.

What does the research say?

Psychologists have identified several factors which contribute to the feeling of habituation, which seems like a good-enough proxy for novelty. They include perceived variety, quantity, and stimulus strength. The important thing to note here is that the sensation of habituation is largely a psychological one. Experiments which changed the amount of attention participants paid to relevant factors were found to either increase or decrease the amount of consumption before satiety kicked in.

This seems to indicate that we can reduce the effects through altering our perception of relevant factors.

For more simple problems like fatigue brought on by satiation during studying, this suggests using something like context switching to make it seem like a greater amount of time has passed. In other words, taking 10 minutes to do something very different to take your mind off work can do a lot more to improve your willingness to continue than spending 20 minutes idly staring at the same textbook pages.

However, it does seem more difficult to apply such a strategy towards habit creation, given that frequency is what we want to max out on. Trying to trick ourselves into thinking that we didn't do the habit is, after all, quite counterproductive.

There are some direct applications, but take them with a large grain of salt. For example, using a productivity app with a dull UI (novelty might not fade if it isn't even exciting to use the first time around) or an app that randomly changes its UI (which might lead to compulsions to open the app, absent the intended reason) seem like intriguing avenues.

Perhaps it would be more tractable to look for a different psychological approach. In addition to our cravings for novelty, humans also have a drive for optimization. We want things to get better, we're always on the lookout for improvement. This drive to improve can be used to cut through the humdrum that repetition brings on.

Ideally, this is what deliberate practice is all about. (Meta-analyses available here and here.)

Deliberate practice is what it sounds like; it's a of training that consists of paying lots of attention the motions being made, often with tight feedback loops. Good athletes and performers rely on this to do well. Their work consists of executing a small set of skills, but they need to do them over and over, well past the point of novelty, in pursuit of perfection.

And it's in this hyper-focused sense of doing better and better that can combat the dulling that fading novelty presents.

For reviewing topics we think we know, this altered view will hopefully substitute back in the more practical actionable-based checks for understanding. Also, I think the practicing analogy can bring up additional inspiration for ways to improve. For example, there might be questions like "Can I execute this skill even when I am tired or distracted?" or "How easy is this to do with my eyes closed?" which normally make sense in a practice context, but could be ported with analogs over to a learning context.

Given that life is all about change, I don't think it's coherent to fully have a view that separates itself from seeking novelty. But I think this is useful insofar as it shifts the scope, so that it focuses on change within tasks, rather than between tasks.

Lastly, our intuitions might even lead us astray in this domain. A recent summary found that we tend to underestimate how much we'll enjoy repeat activities. It seems like this is because it's very difficult to truly duplicate the same experience; when doing the same thing a second time, differences will still persist. This is promising from an experiential perspective as it suggests repetition isn't as bad as it seems.