The Scientific Fundamentalist

A look at the hard truths about human nature.

What Does “Novelty” Mean?

Something you’ve never experienced may nonetheless be familiar to you

Intelligence is correlated with openness to novel experience.  But what does “novel experience” mean?

Research in personality psychology has repeatedly shown that one of the Five-Factor Model personality factors – openness to experience – is significantly positively (albeit moderately) correlated with intelligence.  More intelligent individuals are more open to novel experiences.  The similarly and overlap between intelligence and openness are apparent from the fact that some researchers call this personality factor “intellect” rather than “openness.”

The Hypothesis can provide one explanation for why more intelligent individuals are more open to novel experiences and are therefore more prone to seek novelty.  General intelligence evolved as a domain-specific adaptation to deal with and solve evolutionarily novel problems, so it makes perfect sense that more intelligent individuals, who are better able to solve such problems, are more open to novel entities and concepts that might potentially lead to the solution of such problems.

At the same time, the Hypothesis suggests a possible need to refine the concept of novelty and to distinguish between evolutionary novelty (entities and situations that did not exist in the ancestral environment) and experiential novelty (entities and situations that individuals have not personally experienced in their own lifetime).  While the Five-Factor Model does not specify the type of novelty that open – and thus more intelligent – individuals are more likely to seek, the Hypothesis suggests that more intelligent individuals are more likely to seek only evolutionary novelty, not necessarily experiential novelty.

For example, everybody who is alive in the United States today has lived their entire lives in a strictly monogamous society, and, despite occasional exceptions which make the news, very few contemporary Americans have any personal experiences with polygyny.  Therefore, monogamy is experientially familiar for most Americans whereas polygyny is experientially novel.  The Five-Factor Model may therefore predict that more intelligent individuals are more likely to be open to polygyny as an experientially novel idea or lifestyle.

In contrast, humans are naturally polygynous.  Comparative evidence suggests that our ancestors have practiced mild polygyny throughout human evolutionary history.  Socially imposed monogamy that we have today in most western societies is a relatively recent historical phenomenon. Polygyny is therefore evolutionarily familiar whereas monogamy is evolutionarily novel.  The Hypothesis would thus predict that more intelligent individuals are more likely to be open to monogamy and less open to polygyny.  In fact, the evidence suggests that more intelligent men are more likely to value sexual exclusivity than less intelligent men.

As another example, for most contemporary Americans, traditional names derived from the Bible, such as John and Mary, are experientially more familiar than untraditional names like OrangeJello and LemonJello.  So the Five-Factor Model may predict that more intelligent individuals are more likely to name their children untraditional names like OrangeJello and LemonJello than less intelligent individuals.  From the perspective of the Hypothesis, however, both John and OrangeJello are equally evolutionarily novel, because the Bible itself and all the traditional names derived from it are evolutionarily novel.  So it would not predict that more intelligent individuals are more likely to name their children untraditional names.  In fact, there is no evidence at all that more intelligent individuals are more likely to prefer untraditional names for their children.  Giving one’s children unusual names may indeed be a sign of lower intelligence.

The Hypothesis underscores the need to distinguish between evolutionary novelty and experiential novelty.  It can potentially explain why more intelligent individuals are more likely to seek evolutionary novelty, but not necessarily experiential novelty.  It further suggests that the established correlation between openness and intelligence may be limited to the domain of evolutionary novelty, not necessarily experiential novelty, but the current measures of openness do not adequately address this proposal.

Satoshi Kanazawa is an evolutionary psychologist at LSE and the coauthor (with the late Alan S. Miller) of Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters.

more...

Subscribe to The Scientific Fundamentalist

Current Issue

Dreams of Glory

Daydreaming: How the best ideas emerge from the ether.