Is New Always Better?

Is New Always Better?

We are rarely still. Compulsively checking our notifications, quivering every time our phone buzzes, while struggling to exhaust our bursting agendas. At the same time, the possibility of stimulating voids is easier than ever, simply stepping into an abyss of scrolling, swiping, and shopping. But as we ceaselessly pursue new endeavours, we find ourselves paradoxically bored with tranquillity. So, we leap. In a constant search for a high, we become hedonistic frogs jumping from one distraction to the other. To be unoccupied has become an anomaly, an uncomfortable inertness that we quickly patch up through distraction. 

Have we become cursed by a need for the new? Pledged to the pace, have we failed to study the fine print of this crazed age of innovation?

Frenzied loops have become the inevitable side effects of our addiction to immediacy. This desire towards all that is exhilaratingly fresh has been termed neophilia: an addiction to the new. Indeed, what is new, never fails to stimulate us, however at the extreme, the sequel following peaking excitement is an offshoot of restlessness and distraction[i]. The drive towards improvement makes the fleeting and the future ever so tempting with possibility. 

Meanwhile, the amount of time and tasks have become incongruent. For instance, Dr. Stephanie Brown highlights indeed a neuro-physical weariness, the degradation of attention, and the decline of solid intrapersonal connections as emotional outgrowths of the frenetic character of our age[ii]. The cost of running against the clock is deceivingly high.

Often, while terribly humbling, it is a necessary acceptance to confront the fact that, after all, we are terribly chemical beings. Understanding the science behind it all uncovers that what fuels us to run this endless marathon are the sensations provided by one treacherous novelty-seeking hormone: the devil of dopamine. 

It is the very same neural networks and neurotransmitters at the synaptic connections that modulate the response to both novel stimuli and addictive drugs[iii]. Both novelty and addictive substances engage the central and integrated natural reward system by elevating the activity of dopamine fibres in the VTA–NAc reward circuit. The American neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky has also observed that dopamine is activated in the anticipation of pleasure. How the idea of ‘maybe’ is even more addictive than anything else[iv]. Therefore, dopamine also motivates us to perform actions we believe will bring pleasure, rather than experiencing pleasure inherently. And, conveniently satisfying our craving, it is in our very pockets or hands that we hold a black box of possibility. With our phones and social media we utilize the very same brain circuitry [v]. So often we catch ourselves imagining notifications, jumping when the phone vibrates, anticipating messages, and glancing at our screen with the mere prospect of receiving a text. This phenomenon is attributed to what is known as Variable Reward Schedules[vi]. Through the random display of positive stimuli, we habitually check for updates while anticipating something intrinsically rewarding.

There is more to the story of our insatiability. Neuropsychologist Wolfram Schutlz explains that this impetus is also rooted in our neurochemistry. Dopamine is the culprit fuelling our perpetual quest for more, what “makes us buy a bigger car when our neighbours muscle up on their cars”[vii]. In particular, its activation in the face of positive prediction errors: a situation in which a reward is better than we predicted, urging us to do more of that behaviour. This also serves to explain why we never seem content with what we have. We fall into dysfunctional patterns, a treadmill of indulgence, craving forever-increasing levels of stimulation without a halt. 

But not only do we crave the new, we are also paradoxically overwhelmed by it. Just think of having to make a restaurant reservation and are confronted with the monstrous ubiquity of fork symbols swarming your Google Maps. What to pick? The new sushi place that just opened? What about trying Peruvian fusion which is the new buzz? But weren’t you sort of feeling sushi tonight? Or the infamous “let’s pick a movie to watch”: an invite to an exhausting scroll through possibility. And more often than not, by the time you settle on a film you are left disappointed, it becomes much too late to watch anything at all or you regret not watching what you initially set out to see. 

Circumventing every possible option becomes an exhausting endeavour, and choosing a catacombic burden.  American psychologist Barry Schwartz delves into the behaviours linked to the more and more options with which we are confronted in our daily lives. While the abundant novelty of our time is a glistening temptation, Schwartz tells us that “simply more choice may not always mean more control; perhaps there comes a point in which opportunities become so numerous that we feel overwhelmed” and so rather than being in control we feel incapable of coping[viii]. Having too many options means that each one adds to a set of trade-offs. These have a psychological effect on how we feel about the decisions we make and how satisfied we are with the ones we ultimately choose. This is evident in post-decision regret, where reconsidering rejected alternatives intensifies the emotional impact of our decisions and we second guess the choice we did make.

We live an addictive lifestyle, seeking novel sensations and entrenched in time-consuming behaviours. While we aren’t all glued to slot machines or aroused by cocaine, we are hooked onto quick fixes. This very article will become just another fleeting tab in your browser as you finish, interrupt and proceed with the next new thing. And well, if a text has hurdled your path and you have not even made it till this paragraph here, I will gladly blame it on dopamine and not my penmanship.


[i] Tierney, J. ( 2012, Feb 13). What’s New? Exuberance for Novelty Has Benefits. The New York Times. 

[ii] Brown,S. (2014, January 4). Society’s self-destructive addiction to faster living. The New York Post. 

[iii] Wingo, T., Nesil, T., Choi, J.-S., & Li, M. D. (2016). Novelty Seeking and Drug Addiction in Humans and Animals: From Behavior to Molecules. Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology, 11(3), 456–470.

[iv] Fora.TV. ( 2011. March 3). Dopamine Jackpot! Sapolsky on the Science of Pleasure [Video]. Youtube. 

[v] Haynes,T.( 2018, May 1). Dopamine, Smartphones & You: A battle for your time, Science in the News- Harvard Kenneth C.Griffin. 

[vi] Burhan R and Moradzadeh J. ( 2020). Neurotransmitter Dopamine (DA) and its Role in the Development of Social Media Addiction. Journal of Neurology and Neurophysiology, 11(7): 01-02.

[vii] Schultz W. (2016). Dopamine reward prediction error coding. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 18(1), 23–32.

[viii] Schwartz, B. (2005). The paradox of choice : why more is less. Harper Perennial.

Tara Lenard is a second-year Political Science student at the UVA. While currently specializing in political theory, she is dedicated to maintaining an enlightened standpoint on international affairs. Her recent research focus has been the history, culture, and political economy of Eastern Europe, and more broadly, the area’s contemporary geopolitics. Aside from her academic activities, she is a curious individual who is actively cultivating an interest in music, cinema, history, literature, and art. She speaks five languages and is always eager to travel,  explore new cultures and meet new people.

Taylor Brunnschweiler is a second year studying European Languages and cultures at the university of Groningen. Other than languages, she enjoys cosmetology, illustration and graphic design in general.

4 thoughts on “Is New Always Better?”

  • Dan Lenard says:

    This whole article is in a total contradiction with what I do daily to put the food on the table… but not so deep inside I share the every single word. Trapped in that very contradiction – as we all are – I am proid of my Tara.

  • Nikola says:

    Tara’s poignant reflection on the allure of novelty encapsulates the modern dilemma succinctly. With eloquence, she dissects our incessant pursuit of the ‘new’ and its neurochemical roots, prompting introspection on the impact of our frenzied lifestyles. Her insightful analysis is a compelling call to reevaluate our relationship with novelty in an age of constant distraction.

  • Ljuba Prezelj says:

    Čestitam Tara. Zelo čustveno napisano. Pozdravček, Ljuba

  • DL says:

    It takes guts to sail against the wind and current.

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