Fading Novelty

Male mammals tend to exhibit a frenzy of mating when first introduced to a female. After some time, they lose interest. Until a new female is introduced, that is, whereupon we tend to see renewed interest from the male. This phenomenon is dubbed the Coolidge effect.

I find that the Coolidge effect seems analogous to the idea of fading novelty—the biological definition—which is where something new eventually loses its special sheen. For example, say Carrie gets a new plush cat. She looks at it on her bedside, and it has this sort of attraction that makes it stand out compared to all her other things. Over time, though, her cat plush fades into the background and it no longer feels special.

I think this is a fairly universal feeling, despite there appearing to be very little about the high-level phenomena. All I can find are papers on what happens on the neurological scale with regards to novelty. (And a few pop articles about fading novelty with regards to romantic relationships which don’t offer much insight.)

Other related ideas in this space seem to be that of conditioning, tolerance, and acclimation, where what was once a stressor no longer really elicits much of a response.

I’m interested in looking into fading novelty because it seems like part of the pedagogical problem with learning rationality goes something like this:

Alice learns about back-planning as a new planning skill. Empowered, she starts seeing ways to apply this idea everywhere. Armed with her new hammer, she makes some headway; progress is happening! Soon, though, realizes that the back-planning idea now feels merely commonplace in her mind. The original feeling of “wow” has faded, and it feels less yummy to keep working towards her goals.

My claim is that when we learn new insights, there is only a small window of time to capitalize on the novelty factor that drives us to really find ways to apply the insights. A “use it or lose it” phenomenon seems to happen, where either you actually form some new habits as a result of the insight, or it falls, forgotten, by the wayside.

I think that this is because the novelty of the insight has faded, making it seem less exciting to use.

Now, to be clear, there are obvious reasons for wanting to keep fading novelty in humans:

Fading novelty is our first line of defense against wireheading. If repeated exposure to the same stimuli in normal contexts always triggered the same response, we’d likely get caught in nasty loops where we wouldn’t feel incentivized to go off in the world and explore. We’d likely also be overwhelmed with the novelty of everything all the time, which would undoubtedly make it far harder to focus on the important things.

However, I think it’s important to at least acknowledge that whenever learning rationality, which is insight-based, fading novelty can reduce the “yumminess” we feel towards practicing techniques.

I also think it might be useful to have a few ways to, if not disable, but at least somewhat counter the fading novelty for things that we want to feel new and exciting for an extended amount of time.

Here are some ideas I’ve brainstormed, along with some examples: (Note that the ideas below all sort of skirt around creating new novelty and don’t exactly give a good solution.)

  1. Going Metacontrarian:

I touched on this in the end of the In Defense of the Obvious essay, but this basically consists of noticing your lack of enthusiasm after the novelty fades and knowing that it was going to happen like this. I don’t think this brings back the sheen of novelty, but it feels related, so I included it here.

EX: “Hey, maybe I should make a schedule. But making a schedule no longer feels fun or useful! Oh well, I knew that this would happen. Does that help? Hmm, not really. Does knowing that knowing wouldn’t help, help? Umm…”

  1. Quick Feedback/Incentives/Rewards:

I also think there’s a sense in where, if the action you’re doing produces some sort of reward/incentive, you’ll probably also feel compelled to do it, in a sense independent of novelty. Think checking Facebook, which keeps you craving that delicious red number hanging on the right edge of the globe icon and how satisfying it feels to click it, over and over, time and time again.

EX: When I was practicing coin magic in front of a mirror, getting instant visual feedback on my sleight of hand was immediately rewarding, which kept me practicing, even when the novelty of the trick faded.

  1. Habituate It:

Obviously if you’ve managed to turn the task into a habit, then you don’t need to worry about all this “cultivating novelty” stuff. You’ll just end up…doing it. I’ll hopefully get a Habituation Primer up before

EX: Turning journaling into a daily habit so I don’t need to rely on the motivation boost from novelty.

  1. Contrasting

I don’t know how to effectively leverage this idea, but it seems fairly agreed upon that humans are fairly relative creatures. We compare things with regards to our immediate past as reference points. This is what forms the idea of the hedonic treadmill. The trick, then, is to use the idea of reference points and alternate between ascetic and normal states. I’m unsure how this would apply to rationality, but I suspect that one could breed more appreciation of certain things using this method.
EX: Deliberately not thinking much for a few days to improve appreciation of thinking…or something. I’m not too sure on this one.  

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2 comments

    • I think this is part of it; they explicitly warn against tuning out when you see something you think already know.

      Also, I found out that fasting is a pretty good way to reset your hedonic treadmill (under #4 of Contrasting), which is pretty neat.

      Liked by 1 person

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