Fading Novelty

[When exposed to the same stimulus over and over, our response becomes dulled. This is often referred when someone says the “novelty faded”. Despite having strong evolutionary roots, I think this phenomenon presents challenges for habit formation and learning. I outline the two potential remedies: either changing up the stimulus or changing our attitude towards it.]

A core aspect of human experience is our pursuit of novelty. There is something tantalizing about new pleasures, sensations, and experiences that feels hard-coded into how we operate. “Variety is the spice of life” and all that.

Conversely, things which were once new eventually lose their shine over time, and our search for novelty continues. Things which once enamored us are left on the wayside as our attention is captured by shinier, newer things. “The novelty has faded” and all that.

A few examples to drive the point home:

  1. Songs which sounded so entrancing upon the first few listenings become dull after being put on repeat.
  2. Foods which were so delicious during the first few tastings become bland after being eaten day after day.
  3. Clothes which looked so beautiful when initially worn fade into yet another outfit after being worn over and over.

Repetition dulls us.

In psychology, this phenomenon whereby repeated exposure to a stimulus leads to a decreased response is called habituation. (This is rather unfortunate, as I’ve become accustomed to using “habituate” to refer to the act of making something a habit.) 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.

In short, it’s a basic form of learning.

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. Had we not had such a filter for newness, our thoughts might have looked like:

“Oh wow, that’s new! Look at that majestic tree! It looks just as good as it did yesterday! Oh wow, that’s new! Look at that lush grass! It’s so fluffy! Oh wow, that’s new! Look at that tiger. It’s so— ”

Constantly taking note of everything in your environment is costly; focusing on just what’s new is an effective optimization that often doesn’t require much of a trade-off. Yet, despite it’s useful roots, I think that fading novelty is also responsible some of the difficulties we experience with learning and self-improvement. It also presents several challenges from a philosophical perspective.

****

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. Our undertaker in question may have such thoughts as:

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

I’ve personally 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.

But of course, I think that the initial excitement / effectiveness of switching something new has little to do with the actual merits of the new thing compared to the old. The real difference is the mere change itself—by changing to something new, your brain is now more interested.

Now, I don’t mean to necessarily knock this initial burst of excitement. I’m glad that humans have the ability to jumpstart 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.

Novelty fades, and it seems to do so at a rate faster than the rough baseline of two months needed to form a habit. 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, give up too easily. This can lead someone to switch constantly, never sticking with something long enough for it to become a habit.

Taken to extremes, you’ll look like the rationality junkie described in In Defense of The Obvious, where you’re compelled to seek out ever-more radical-seeming insights because you’ve exhausted the benefit provided to you by more “normal” or “obvious” interventions.

****

Cue someone reviewing a topic they’ve seen before:

The decreased response we get from the same stimulus plays a pernicious role in learning, where I think it contributes to a sense of false understanding. In the same way that a song heard over and over becomes easy to recognize, something analogous with books that we read over and over, as well as concepts we review over and over. Fading novelty leads us to think we understand something, when we really might not.

Because novelty fades, subjects we try to learn might start to look dull (and other newer areas more enticing) before we’ve actually mastered them. Thus, when trying to review, you 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.

Compare the previous thought with:

“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.”

Here are some more examples where such a 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 reviewing math, it’s easier to ask ourselves “Do these symbols look familiar?” instead of “If I covered up the steps, could I reproduce this proof?
  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 where I am predominantly concerned about fading novelty presenting challenges. They are both centered around the efforts of an individual and self-improvement. On a broader scale, I think similar issues manifest.

For example, in the sciences, 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 so 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.

Psychologists have identified several factors which contribute to the feeling of fading 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 these 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 often seems counterproductive.

can think of some applications, but they’re a bit a stretch. For example, using a productivity app with a dull UI (“You can’t have the novelty 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).

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 Good Practice is about.

Athletes and performers channel this attitude a lot, I think. 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.

For reviewing topics we think we know, this altered view will hopefully substitute back in the more practical actionable-based checks for understanding. In addition, 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.

This attitude has parallels to deliberate practice (see here and here for overviews), of being more intentional and analytical about which areas to improve on.

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 with regards to the same task, rather than the task itself.

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4 comments

  1. […] Fading Novelty finally outlined my stab at the Big Experiential Phenomenon that I think about a lot. As a phenomenon, it appears to be largely entwined with how we live life, i.e. in how humans continuously seeking out new experiences, which makes it difficult to look at in isolation. But I’m glad I now have a semi-well-structured essay to serve as a central point, after making several implicit references. […]

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  2. Great blog! I have seen the link to the new updated version, but since you don’t have comments up on it yet, I’ll post here. I only just found this blog, and I think what you are doing is great. Please keep up the good work! It’s great to see Productivity Hackers like you, who can explain things in a very succinct way, without beating around the bush. I have found certain writers, who have interesting ideas, who nevertheless have a tendency for long, rambling explication that often involves much mis-stepping. Glad to see you have avoided that here.

    On your Section [****] 3, where you mention the problem that fading novelty presents in learning something comprehensively. I totally agree that without focused retrieval practice and testing, your learning will be rather brittle/shallow. But I would disagree that it is INITIALLY always desirable to jump right in to retrieval practice/testing, or that time spent on “familiarization” is actually a waste.

    A problem with early retrieval practice to “learn the material better” is that your knowledge pool in the subject is rather shallow. So despite “learning” words/terminologies/methods, your understanding of their context is rather weak. This means that you can be prone to a lot of misconceptions, or flat-out errors. When you carry those errors/misconceptions with you into retrieval practice, despite having surface level accuracy, you have formed incorrect impressions of the topic. Worse still, because you see yourself getting things “correct”, you have confidence in your [pseudo] understanding of said topic, which can prove problematic when you are being corrected later on.

    Yes, if you go over a book/text a couple of times, you clearly do not exercise full comprehension. BUT you are recognizing things as you go along, including new terminology, and the different potential ways that terminology could apply to the overall sense of the material. In fact here, your “forgetfulness” may actually be a bit of a virtue, as you are having to link concepts together into some coherent framework, whilst being aware that you actually only have a vague grasp of the details. Upon using retrieval practice for further solidification, due to your familiarity [not mastery] of the material, you are better able to see potential pitfalls in your learning, and what possible routes to take when you are setting up your retrieval practice. To use a basic example; if you are learning about glycolysis, and there are multiple diagrams that you could remember [through retrieval practice], your greater familiarity [when you have studied around the topic] could enable you to pick the appropriate one that gives you greatest insight/clarity into the process. Instead of trying to create some “master” diagram and expending lots of effort on a potentially flawed system [flawed because it’s possible your complete lack of familiarity initiates you into certain mistakes when coming up with an accurate schema of the process].

    So I actually think different stages of learning can benefit from both styles of learning. I would disagree that one style is always superior.

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    • Hi Jobinul!

      Thanks for leaving a detailed response! It’s great to hear that you think the content I have on here is useful!

      In regards to your comment, I think that:

      – I think it’s fair to refer to the focused effort I claim is useful as retrieval practice, but I think it encompasses more than just testing yourself. Re: Recognizing vs Generating, there seem to be Generating tasks which are also here, like coming up with new ideas vs critiquing original ones.

      – I agree that there is a benefit to familiarity, e.g. not being overwhelmed with a new math paper because you now know what many of the symbols actually mean. I think I agree that immersion of some sort is useful when learning, e.g. I end up doing something much less structured when it comes to understanding a new codebase.

      – It’s less that I think unstructured learning that isn’t retrieval/focused isn’t very good. Rather, the problem I see myself slipping into is that of substituting a harder task with an easier one, e.g. “reading the book” versus “testing myself on summarizing the main ideas”, *even when* I’m at the stage where the second task would be better for me. And I think that fading novelty is a mechanism that at least partially explains that.

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