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Novelty bias, our friend and our enemy

We’re all quite used to Zoom meetings by now. No doubt you’ve experienced someone forgetting to unmute, maybe kids hijacking a meeting. A highlight from a former colleague of mine is his son mooning the entire leadership team of a certain sportswear company from Oregon, while his Dad took a loo break!

You’ll also be familiar with they way someone’s eyes subtly shift to look off-screen. We all know what’s going on don’t we? Let’s be honest, they’re checking emails, surfing the web or catching up on social media.

Anything to take their mind away from the meeting they’re supposed to be concentrating on.

We all do it because we’re human. Every single one of us is born with the drive to have half an eye out for something new, unable to resist the call of something fresh and different on the horizon.

We evolved this way so we could spot a sabre-toothed tiger ready to eat us alive, or find food in an unforgiving savannah. Today it means the brain is always tempted to ignore what’s going in front its nose in favour of anything new and shiny.

This ‘Novelty Bias’ has many, many implications for how we live our lives and also how we do marketing. Some good, some less so.

On the plus side, your subconscious is amazing at doing daily tasks on autopilot, so you can be ready for something more exciting. It’s how you can arrive at a destination unable to remember most of the drive there. It’s where good ideas to come from, because if you had to think about everything you did every second, your brain would be too tired for anything else.

It’s why we like brands, they are familiar and reliable and help us not to think too hard, and so we can focus on what is more interesting.

It’s why PR is such a powerful tool. Being recommended by trusted sources means people are more likely to trust you and buy you, simply because they don’t have to work too hard at it.

There are downsides though. The novelty of new things wears off really quickly, because our brains encourage us to get used to them and look for the next thing.

So we under-appreciate the perfectly brilliant stuff we already have in our lives, in favour of new things we really don’t need, that we’ll get bored with.

It’s why happily married people have affairs.

It’s why you should save money and book a one-week holiday rather than a fortnight. The second week doesn’t have much benefit, we’ve already got used to the change of scenery. If you need another week to rest, spend it at home.

This also means you tend to crave a decent cup of tea when you get back.

It’s why there’s evidence that once you get over the salary of £50,000 a year, you don’t really get any happier because you already have everything you need. The additional pressure from a more high-powered job isn’t worth being able to buy more things that only have a fleeting benefit.

Which in turn explains why florists are, on average, 20% happier with their lives than CEOs.

It also means that brands have to work really hard to stay special in the minds of consumers. When the novelty wears off, a shinier competitor can steal your buyer simply because they noticed it, or have a fresher offer. This, of course, is an opportunity if you’re willing to constantly innovate and work to stand out.

On a very topical level, it explains why YouGov data shows that 73% think the nation is taking the current lockdown less seriously than the last. COVID isn’t novel anymore; it’s a way of life now so our brains cannot sum up the urgency to rigidly follow the rules this time.

So, Novelty Bias is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes a challenge, sometimes an ally. Like all aspects of human nature, the more you understand and work with it, the more successful you’ll be.