Life is all about change, but for some people, that change is not very pleasant. Psychology tends to label attractions to situations as "philias." Though it sounds like a dreaded disease, someone who is a "neophiliac" simply craves anything that's new. Author Winifred Gallagher recently revived the concept of neophilia in her book "New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change." Although she focuses on neophilia in our contemporary age of high-tech gadgets and social media, such as why you might want the iPad, the concept of being attracted to the new has a long history in psychology.
In 1993, Washington University psychiatrist Robert Cloninger and his associates began their long and ambitious journey to develop a comprehensive model of personality. Eventually they arrived at a 7-factor approach that takes into account hereditary and environmental influences, and sets forth a path for individuals to live their lives to the fullest.
It's within this context that the personality dimension of novelty-seeking first emerged. In a recent New York Times interview, Cloninger argues that the quality of novelty-seeking can be one of the brightest spots on our personality horizon. A number of years ago, he identified novelty-seeking as one of four basic "temperaments," meaning that it is an automatic emotional response that primes us to seek out new experiences. The other three temperaments are harm avoidance (aversion to risk), reward dependence (being sensitive to social situations and reinforcement), and persistence (ability to persist in pursuit of a goal). Cloninger believes that these temperaments are largely inherited, meaning that they are built into our biological makeup. Some of us are programmed to embrace the new; others to run as far away from it as possible.
Temperament tells only part of the story. As we go through life, our experiences mold our sense of self and lead us to develop our values and goals. These qualities, called "character" in the 7-factor model, include self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence. People high in self-directedness can regulate their behavior so that they can work toward achieving their desired goals. Being cooperative means that you are prosocial and willing to help others. If you are high in self-transcendance, you are willing to move outside of your own individualistic concerns and see yourself as being an integral component of the universe as a whole.
Cloninger bases his "science of well-being" on a holistic philosophy that emphasizes free will, self-awareness, creativity, and "gifts of the mind and experience" that cannot always be quantified. The measurement instruments he and others developed as they hammered out their theory is used both to diagnose psychopathology and to identify the basic components of the healthy personality.
In order to determine your true stance on the novelty-seeking dimension, you would have to take the entire 7-factor inventory, called the Temperament and Character Inventory. I can't offer you that here, but I've summed up each dimension so you can see where you stand. These general descriptions show the high and low score alternatives:
High scorer: You are always ready to explore new situations and, in fact, find it highly rewarding to do so.
Low scorer: You prefer to stick to the tried and true even if it means you miss out on some opportunities.
High scorer: You make decisions quickly without necessarily considering all the consequences.
Low scorer: Before making a decision, you reflect on the pros and cons.
High scorer: You are ready to spend money in order to obtain the rewards you desire.
Low scorer: You are reserved and tend to hold out on spending money.
High scorer: You are spontaneous and don't like to be hemmed in by rules and regulations.
Low scorer: You are regimented and tend to stick to a certain routine.
As you can see, novelty-seeking has its good and bad points. Exploring new situations is definitely a plus, as we know from research on the related quality of openness to experience. Impulsivity is not such a desirable quality, on the other hand, as it can lead you to make rash choices that you later come to regret. A strong drive toward extravagance can lead you to be overly dependent on your brain's pleasure centers and also lead you to spending splurgers. Disorderliness has its drawbacks, particularly when your job depends on your being able to show a presentable face to the public or when you have to abide by someone else's rules.
In research on novelty-seeking, the pros of being able to roll with life's changes seem to be balanced against the cons of being vulnerable to addictive behaviors. There is a substantial literature showing that people high in novelty-seeking are more prone to substance use disorders including alcohol and dependence and tobacco use (Etter, 2010; Fergusson et al., 2008). The desire to seek new stimulation can cross from the tendency to get bored with the same-old-same-old to a constant search for an altered state of consciousness.
Looking under the hood of the person high in novelty-seeking, it seems that dopamine, the pleasure neurotransmitter, seems to be involved. According to research conducted by Zalid et al (2009), high dopamine activity in a specific part of the midbrain is higher in individuals high in novelty-seeking, even after controlling for age and gender. An orientation toward reward could help account for the relationship between the desire to seek out new experiences and a tendency to develop addictive behaviors.
Some forms of novelty-seeking may, on the plus side, may be related to creativity. According to Marvin Zuckerman, people who seek pleasure from new experiences are also likely to be more creative. The ability to have big ideas seems to require a certain degree of enjoyment of expanding your mental horizons into new territory.
Novelty-seeking, then, is a mixed bag in terms of its ability to get you through life. To get the most benefit from novelty-seeking, it's important to keep the balance in mind between sameness and change. New may be better than old, but not at the cost to your mental health.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Fergusson, D. M., Boden, J. M., & Horwood, L. (2008). The developmental antecedents of illicit drug use: Evidence from a 25-year longitudinal study. Drug And Alcohol Dependence, 96(1-2), 165-177. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2008.03.003
Zald, D. H., Cowan, R. L., Riccardi, P., Baldwin, R. M., Ansari, M., Li, R., & ... Kessler, R. M. (2008). Midbrain dopamine receptor availability is inversely associated with novelty-seeking traits in humans. The Journal Of Neuroscience, 28(53), 14372-14378. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.2423-08.2008