For a certain breed of consumers, the arrival of Apple’s third-generation iPad is an occasion of monomaniacal focus and intense anticipation. Visions of how the shiny new gadget will revolutionize their lives fill their heads. They’re willing to sacrifice hours waiting in line and hard-earned cash that they can ill afford to spare, all to get their hands on Apple’s hot new toy. Just like they did, most likely, for assorted iPads and iPhones in the past. Why is it that some consumers are constantly driven to possess the newest and hottest gadgets?
The lure of the new applies to consumers with a particular personality style. Psychology researchers have shown that each of us has our own level of craving for new things. They call this “novelty-seeking,” or the sexier alternative, “neophilia.” The curiosity motive, long known to cause both humans and non-humans to seek mental stimulation, exists to different degrees in all of us. Originally identified by psychiatrist Robert Cloninger, novelty-seeking is an automatic emotional orientation, one of four basic personality temperaments.
People with high degrees of novelty-seeking are drawn to new situations, experiences, and, of course, possessions. They tend to make impulsive decisions, be disorganized, and are highly oriented toward seeking and getting rewards. Research also shows that novelty-seeking is associated to addictive disorders, including substance abuse.
Generally speaking, people high in neophilia, or neophiliacs, are among those compelled to be on the lookout for the newest, highest-profile technological advances and to be first in line when the newest gadget shows up in stores. The “high” they experience while cradling their latest gadget is similar to the rush of pleasure that occurs in the reward centers of the brain when any type of addiction is satisfied. Techno-gadgets are particularly appealing because they themselves have addictive qualities, as any ardent player of Angry Birds will attest. Unfortunately, the “high” will fade quickly as the brain adapts and seeks the next rewarding novelty.
These individuals become easily bored. By now, their iPad 2, once their closest companion, has faded in attractiveness and perceived usefulness. They’re ready to defriend it as if it was an annoying former acquaintance on Facebook. One day, most likely, they’ll feel the same way about the third-gen iPad as well.
If you’re a true technological neophiliac, you run the risk of creating a great deal of potential unhappiness for yourself. The sacrifice you will undoubtedly make in time, energy, and money is part of the cause of your distress. More importantly, though, you can drain your emotional reserves by your constant yearning. You will definitely fail to live in the moment because the moment soon becomes mundane.
Is neophilia always bad? Definitely not. Being open to new experiences is one of the most positive personality traits you can have. You will find it easier to adapt to a changing world and will never be accused of being stuck in the past. Novelty-seeking has its benefits because it leads your brain to engage in constantly shifting stimulation, and that stimulation will keep it healthy and vital well into your later years.
When neophilia is cause for obsessions and starts to rule your life, however, you must take back control. One strategy to consider is to take one of your relatively recent acquisitions that you’re a little bored with, and put it into hibernation for a week. As the days pass, you’ll start to notice that you really miss “Old Reliable.” You realize that you actually did feel comfortable with your old friend whose buttons and touch screen you’d mastered, and you won’t feel a strong need to replace it.
Another option is to temporarily indulge your neophiliac fantasy, just in a safe way. Leaving your credit cards and any other means of payment at home, go to the store, play with the gadget of your desire, and then leave—without making a purchase. Tell your brain’s reward center to simmer down. Breathe.
Next, think hard about why it’s often a bad idea to be the first one to jump on the latest trend. Early adopters are prone to doing things and making purchases that seem silly in retrospect: For instance, they stand in line overnight for product that’ll be widely available, with no wait, a couple days later. Early purchasers can also expect to pay more than consumers who buy the same products a little later. Finally, before buying any new product, read the reviews, especially the critical ones, and exercise your critical judgment. Take control, rather than letting your neophilic impulse run wild.
Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is a professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her most recent book is The Search for Fulfillment, and she writes the Fulfillment at Any Age blog for Psychology Today.