Novelty fallacy: why new isn’t always better

The most recent smartphone, the latest tool, the hottest trend… Humans are naturally attracted to novelty, whether it’s new objects or new ideas. In the modern world, our desire to be on the cutting edge of technology only exacerbates the appeal of adopting the newest innovations. However, there is danger in blindly embracing something new without first examining it with a critical eye. This is known as the novelty fallacy, also known as the novelty bias.

Overly drawn to novelty

The novelty fallacy is deeply rooted in our neurobiology. It is well known that the brain’s reward system is stimulated by novel ideas and objects. As novelty sparks our sense of curiosity, our brains make us naturally drawn to explore ideas and objects that feel unfamiliar to us or seem more recent than the ones we currently know or own.

The way we experience novelty can have a significant impact on learning, performance and cognitive development: neuroscientists have explored experiences of novelty and discovered that novelty increases our attention, promotes memory formation, and modifies our goal-directed behaviour. As such, our attraction to novelty can be helpful for our survival, but a fast-changing environment can render this cognitive bias rather problematic.

The novelty bias is a form of informal logical fallacy, where we consider that something is better simply because it’s new. Of course, in some cases, novelty seeking does correlate with benefits. For example, a newer computer may offer improved speed and performance. However, not all new ideas and objects will offer benefits over something older or more established.

Researchers have come together to question the dominant discourse that constructs innovation as an inherently “good thing”, and critically analysed innovation and its undesirable consequences. In their own words: “The one-sided focus on desirable effects of innovation misses many opportunities to reduce the undesirable consequences.”

In Western societies, there’s a common tendency to seek innovation not only in terms of technology, but as an important driver of organisational success. With innovation often viewed as essential for businesses, it is not surprising that the assumption that innovation is inherently good is often not questioned.

However, following their analysis, the researchers found that the novelty fallacy can lead to a pro-innovation bias, the belief that a certain innovation should be widely used across society without the need for any adjustments. Often, the person championing the novel idea is so strongly biased in its favour that they cannot see any shortcomings and continue to promote it regardless. In business, this may lead to unnecessary investments of time or finances, for little reward.

The impact of the novelty fallacy

As consumers, most of us will have been affected by the novelty fallacy. Companies often rely on this bias to sell us newer products we believe to be better than items we currently own, for example because we assume that the company will have considered existing problems and corrected them with the latest edition.

A company may try to sell you a new software, persuading you that it will increase overall productivity. However, beyond some cosmetic differences, it may have no additional benefits when compared to the system you currently use. Despite performing well, the new software may have minimal impact on output and could fail to lead to a return on investment.

Similarly, many business leaders have relied on restructuring their teams to tackle business challenges. Changes to organisational structure are often recommended for businesses in financial distress or undergoing rapid expansion. A new structure is expected to help generate fresh solutions. But such reshuffles are unlikely to lead to improved performance if the systematic issues are not addressed.

The novelty fallacy can affect your personal life, too. For example, the launch of a new smartphone may instantly appeal to you, though it simply boasts aesthetic changes with no significant technological improvements when compared to your current model.

You may also be swayed by novel health ideas, including new diets. The promise of improved health via a new, original method feels more appealing than calorie restriction and increased exercise. However, many novel diets are based on minimal scientific evidence, may not yield long-term results, and could even lead to nutrient deficiency. New is not always better.

How to manage the novelty fallacy

Although the novelty fallacy occurs naturally due to how the brain’s reward system is designed, once you’re aware of this bias it is possible to avoid falling prey to its worst consequences. The following strategies will help you make rational decisions that are not purely based on novelty:

  • Notice when novelty feels appealing. Pay attention to what it is about a new idea or product that’s drawing you in. Try to articulate why its novelty is beneficial: is it because it comes with much needed improvements in performance or experience? Is it because the previous version was lacking in some fundamental way? Ignore the novel aspect and then explore the benefits of the object independently. If you find it hard to justify an upgrade, it may be that your brain’s reward centres are being stimulated by novelty, but the new product or idea itself is not truly valuable to you.
  • Document the limitations of a new approach. The appeal to novelty is natural and hard to resist. Our excitement about a new product or idea may cause us to lose sight of the big picture. It can be helpful to make a list of the limitations associated with a new product or idea. Think about how switching or upgrading may impact your time, money, and energy, and consider whether these costs are truly worth it.
  • Delay decision making. Giving yourself more time before committing to innovation so you can avoid succumbing to the shiny toy syndrome. Before you embrace something new, define what success looks like for you or your business, check whether the product will truly benefit you, and estimate the impact it will have. This may take a little bit longer, but will avoid constantly switching gears because of the novelty fallacy.

We are frequently exposed to novel ideas which affect our attention, our memory, and the way we approach our goals. Innovations stimulate the reward centres of the brain, increasing the appeal to novelty, which can lead to hurried decision making. By implementing strategies to avoid falling prey to the novelty fallacy, you can ensure the decisions you make are based on rational factors, rather than being influenced by novelty.

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