Humans Oscillate Between Wanting Novelty and Familiarity

I was listening to a random episode of the a16z podcast a few years back, and a guest on the show said something random that I thought was profound. I’m not sure the exact quote, but it was something like:

We bounce back and forth between wanting something new and wanting to experience patterns that we recognize.

It was a note inside of a comment inside of a point, but it impacted me greatly. It immediately brought many examples to mind—mostly around art—but across many genres.

  • In music, we like a new rhythm, beat, or harmony, but we also enjoy hearing it in each verse. And when we hear the song again, it’s the hook (the pattern) that we’re waiting for.

  • In stories, we like to hear about different characters, but we ultimately want to see them go on the Hero’s Journey.

  • In both cases, if you repeat a pattern—even a pleasant one too often—it becomes boring and/or annoying.

I think this specifically relates to survival and the signaling of value, but I’m not sure.

I think this comes, as so many things do, from evolution. I don’t know the exact mechanism, but I think we’re tuned to find novelty because it could give us an advantage, and we’re tuned to find known-good patterns because we know they’re safe.

It’s a powerful concept for any creator.

The challenge is to constantly tweak the balance between new and repetitive in a way that keeps the viewer or user at optimal stimulation. Too much novelty and they crinkle their faces in confusion and rejection. Too much repetition and they yawn with boredom.

Of course, this depends on the person as well. I bet people who score high in Openness on an OCEAN personality test lean heavily towards wanting more novelty, and those who score low probably want more returns to (conservative) patterns.

I started learning to make EDM music recently, and it struck me here as well.

I see this in everything now. It’s in how I communicate. It’s in how I present material. I see it in the books I read, in the music I listen to, and in arguments I see people make.

Everyone is open or closed to new things, and that controls—for the last few moments or minutes of your interaction—whether you’re presenting them something they’re comfortable with that calms them, or something that’s new to them that exhilarates them. You have to know where they are in that cycle to know how best to continue.

So, think about this oscillation as you move through life. When you hear a pitch, or a song, or a story, notice when you’re being exposed to the novelty, and when you’re being reassured with safe patterns.

I find it fascinating, and I hope you will now as well.

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