Never heard of a “neophiliac”? (No, it doesn’t mean I’m attracted to dead bodies.) I hadn’t heard of it until I read a story last week in the New York Times. Here’s the lead to the story:
Do you make decisions quickly based on incomplete information? Do you lose your temper quickly? Are you easily bored? Do you thrive on situations that seem chaotic to others, or do you like everything well-organized?
Much (but not all) of that sounded like me. I became more intrigued the more I read. Researchers have linked this novelty-seeking personality type to the brain’s dopamine system. My Parkinson’s may be killing off my dopamine cells, but does that mean I should be more inclined to sit at home in a rocking chair? My departure next week for Nepal would seem to argue against it.
But now, after some extensive tracking of novelty-seekers, researchers are seeing the trait’s upside, according to the report. In fact: “In the right combination with other traits, it’s a crucial predictor of well-being.” Whew! That’s better.
Psychiatrist C. Roger Cloninger has been researching this trait since the 1990s. Early in his studies, he focused on the problems associated with neophilia, but the advantages became apparent after he and his colleagues tracked thousands of people in the U.S., Israel, and Finland. He now says:
It can lead to antisocial behavior [been there, done that!], but if you combine this adventurousness and curiosity with persistence and a sense that it’s not all about you, then you get the creativity that benefits society as a whole.
Dr. Cloninger (a professor of psychiatry and genetics at Washington University in St. Louis) and his colleagues used a test, the Temperament and Character Inventory, to track changes in people’s lives over more than a decade. They looked for the crucial combination of traits that seemed to work for those who reported the best health, most friends, fewest emotional problems, and greatest satisfaction with life.
A trio of traits were found that contributed to their happy temperament and character. They scored high in novelty-seeking, persistence, and “self-transcendence.” Persistence may sound like the opposite of novelty-seeking, but Cloninger says they can coexist and balance each other, explaining:
People with persistence tend to be achievers because they keep working at something even when there’s no immediate reward, They think “I didn’t win this time, but next time I will.” But what if conditions have changed? Then you’re better off trying something new. To succeed you want to be able to regulate your impulses while also having the imagination to see what the future would be like if you tried something new.
As for the other trait in the trio — self transcendence — he says it gives people a larger perspective:
It’s the capacity to get lost in the moment doing what you love to do, to feel a connection to nature and humanity and the universe. It’s sometimes found in disorganized people who are immature and do a lot of wishful thinking and day-dreaming, but when it’s combined with persistence and novelty-seeking, it leads to personal growth and enables you to balance your needs with those of the people around you.
Behavior science writer Winifred Gallagher has followed this story and written a book about it, New: Understanding Our Need for Novelty and Change. She asserts that three “knowledge emotions” — surprise, curiosity, and interest — are the foundations underpinning neophilia, and motivate us to learn.
Just as Cloninger found that it works best if novelty-seeking is combined with persistence and self-transcendence, Gallagher says it needs to be accompanied by the adaptation filter:
To survive, you must be aroused by the new and different. To be efficient and productive, however, you must focus your finite mental energy and attention on those novel sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that somehow matter and screen out the rest. Just as arousal alerts and orients you to new things, the complementary process of adaptation helps you filter out the unimportant ones.
“Don’t go wide and shallow into useless trivia,” she cautions. “Use your neophilia to go deep into subjects that are important to you.” That path requires persistence and self-transcendence, Dr. Cloninger would undoubtedly add.
The Quiz: How Adventurous Are You?
Intrigued by all of this, I decided to take the neophilia quiz that was mentioned in the NYT story. It only took a few minutes. Turned out that with a score of 50, I was just on the cusp of the “Adventurous” category. A score of 49 would have put me in the “Curious” box. The result didn’t surprise me. I’m used to finding myself on the cusp in tests like this. No matter how many times I’ve taken the Myers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, I end up on the borderline between ISFP (“the artist”) and INTP (‘the thinker”).
Here are the definitions and score ranges that distinguish the novelty-seeking “adventurous” from the merely “curious.”
Adventurous (50 or more) You tend to enthusiastically approach the new and different as potentially rewarding and downplay any risks involved. You may live too fast and die too young, but you also explore, experiment and otherwise push the envelope for the rest of us, often in productive ways. You’re innovative, adventurous and extravagant but also apt to be impulsive, irritable and overindulgent regarding food, alcohol, drugs and other temptations.
Curious (35-49) You have a healthy interest in the new and different but you balance your enthusiasm for the possible rewards with careful consideration of potential risks. You don’t want to be scared stiff by too much novelty and change, but you don’t want to be bored stiff by too little, either. Because you aren’t biologically primed to react to the new in an extreme way, you have more flexibility and behavioral options. You have time to decide whether to approach, avoid, or think further about your course of action. If your score is at the higher end of this category range, you tilt toward thrill-seeking. If your score is at the lower end, you tend to be more cautious,
Want to see where you score? Here’s the test