GUEST AUTHOR BLOG: The Right and Left Agree We Need Change by Winifred Gallagher author of, "New: Understanding our Need for Novelty and Change."
Early in this election year, it’s already clear that Republicans and Democrats will disagree even more vehemently about what’s best for America, with one exception: both insist that we need change, and we need it now.
President Obama was elected for promising the kind of change “you can believe in.” Mitt Romneyfavors the sort of change that “begins with us.” Rick Perryefficiently swiped at both rivals: “Romney: Change You Can Believe In?”
For some, change means deficit reduction and a return to tradition, for others, expansion and anticipation of the future. Whatever the parties’ philosophical differences, however, the psychologically savvy svengalis who run their campaigns know that to win, they must appeal to our “neophilia,” or unique human affinity for the new and different.
Homo sapiens evolved our innate ability to engage with and even pursue novelty and change in response to the extraordinarily volatile African environment from which our species emerged. In this unpredictable milieu of monsoons alternating with droughts, our ancestors developed a genius for adapting to shifting situations and experimenting with new things. This flexibility enabled us to survive while many other species died out, including some Homo groups much like us. Indeed, neophilia saved us from extinction 80,000 years ago, when a particularly catastrophic climate crisis reduced our ranks to some thousands, if not hundreds, of reproductive couples.
Like our early forebears, we’re attracted to novelty because both the risks and rewards that affect survival and well-being are likelier to come from something new in the environment than from the same old same old. That’s why you can’t help glancing at the TV in public places, even if you don’t want to: you’re primed to zero in on change.
Our basic reaction to something new, which scientists call the “arousal-adaptation” response, is so important to life that even infants a few hours old will stare at a fresh image for about 41 seconds, then get bored by repeated showings and tune out. Many times each day, we experience this dual dynamic, which is vividly illustrated by the “Coolidge effect,” or the strong mammalian tendency to get excited by a new potential sexual partner, then get used to him or her. This fundamental psychological process of being turned on by the next big thing, then getting over it, will play a major role in the upcoming elections.
"Our basic reaction to something new, which scientists call the “arousal-adaptation” response, is so important to life that even infants a few hours old will stare at a fresh image for about 41 seconds, then get bored by repeated showings and tune out."
Four years ago, candidate Barack Obama greatly benefited from the arousal evoked by being something really new on the political scene. Now, voters’ inevitable adaptation to the first African-American president’s novelty is an obstacle to his re-election, particularly at a time of widespread discontent with Washington’s status quo. Somehow, the president must defend his White House record while promising that in future, things will be different: Even more change you can believe in?
The eventual Republican nominee will benefit from the sheer newness of not being the familiar guy in the White House. Then too, throughout this primary season, the party has generated very high levels of arousal, both positive and negative, by presenting an unusual number of candidates offering novel personal histories and ideas, including pizza magnate Herman Cain and his 9-9-9 tax plan, congressional revolutionary Newt Gingrichand his proposed revision of child labor laws, and libertarian Ron Pauland his desire to bring the troops home—all of them.
In this political season, it’s important to remember that although our neophilia can inspire great innovations such as democracy and the election of groundbreaking leaders such as Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, it can also contribute to a chronic restlessness and dissatisfaction, which are now fed by a constant stream of titillating but trivial news bites. At a critical time in American history, we can’t afford to be seduced by change for its own sake or candidates distinguished mostly by their novelty. We need to use our neophilia for its true evolutionary purpose: focusing on, learning about, and creating the new things that have enduring value and dismissing the rest as distractions.