Humans naturally seek novelty, or new experiences and information. It’s one reason why we love to try new foods, visit new places, and develop new skills. This drive for novelty can push us to become better-rounded people with lots of fulfilling experiences. When taken to extremes, however, an addiction to novelty can prevent us from sticking with the things we’ve chosen to try. It can lead to a lot of jumping around, which reduces the very fulfillment new experiences should provide. In this article, we distinguish between novelty-seeking behavior and novelty addiction so that you can get an idea of where on the spectrum you fall.
Information addiction is a term being used a lot lately to describe many people’s non-stop pursuit of new information, particularly online. A constant desire to scroll through Facebook, check your email, refresh Twitter, or Google the answer to every possible question likely qualifies as information addiction.
Novelty seeking is a personality trait that a number of psychologists have identified. Its basic characteristic is a sense of adventurousness and curiosity: basically a drive to try new things.
The personality trait may be at least partially genetic, but it’s also related to the release of dopamine in the brain when we encounter new stimuli. Novelty seeking can be a positive drive. It can lead to personal growth and greater satisfaction with life. People with novelty-seeking behavior tend to have lots of friends and good health. A key to the positive side of novelty seeking is that it works best when paired with persistence. This leads people not only to try new experiences, but to stick with them. A combination of novelty seeking and persistence can help people to run marathons, pursue advanced degrees, and tackle big projects at work.
On the flip side, novelty seeking can also be associated with impulsivity, a tendency to get bored, and a short temper. People with novelty seeking behavior tend to be risk takers and may be more likely to engage in compulsive spending, gambling, substance abuse, and high-risk sports. There is also a danger of antisocial behavior. People with high novelty seeking behavior can get bored in relationships and often pursue activities alone. To avoid these self-destructive risks, it’s important to recognize when novelty seeking is going too far and exercise some restraint.
Novelty addiction isn’t an official medical term, but it’s what we’re calling novelty seeking behavior that becomes difficult to control. If you find yourself constantly driven to try new things but can’t stick with them, you may have a problem with novelty addiction. Take some time to think about your behavior. Do you often feel the need to change jobs? Do you lose interest in long-term projects before they’re complete? Do you get bored in relationships? Do you seek out new sports or challenges but move on quickly? If these apply to you, you may be falling victim to novelty addiction. There’s nothing wrong with seeking new challenges, but you have a problem when novelty seeking prevents you from actually enjoying new experiences or growing from them. If you are constantly looking for the next thing, you may have trouble maintaining relationships, developing fulfilling hobbies, or advancing in your career.
It’s important to find a balance between novelty and sustained growth. Look for jobs and hobbies that give you a reliable input of novelty. For example, you may thrive in a career that involves a series of short projects, rather than working on the same thing every day. Hobbies such as travelling or running and biking can help you to constantly see new sites while building some long-term skills. Ultimately, you’ll need to work on balancing persistence with novelty. Remember to ask yourself whether you’re seeking fulfillment in a new opportunity or if you’re just seeking novelty. Fulfillment may take some time, but it’s worth it.
Have you ever felt the irresistible urge to check your phone after hearing a notification ping while out to dinner? Or immediately opened up Google to check on a piece of trivia? If you’re a smartphone owner, the answer to at least one of those questions is almost definitely yes. Today, we’re used to having almost unlimited information literally at our fingertips.
Curiosity is a defining human characteristic, and one that has led us as a species to continually explore, advance, and improve. It’s also a characteristic that keeps many of us glued to our Facebook feeds.
In many ways, information addiction works similarly to other kinds of addiction. Discovering a new piece of information triggers dopamine in our brains’ neurons (some researchers of the University of Michigan attribute the reward to the opioid system rather than dopamine). That information could be a piece of gossip heard on the phone, a new connection learned through research, an emailed answer to a question you’ve been waiting for, or the plot summary for a movie you haven’t watched on Wikipedia. These all provide a sense of novelty and reward that we crave more of.
What sets information apart from many other kinds of addiction is how accessible it is. As we scroll through Twitter or our Facebook News Feed, we’re receiving a constant drip of new pieces of information. However, the more information we receive and the more quickly we receive it, the more we build up a tolerance level, which means that we keep seeking more information in order to trigger that reward.
Have you ever realized you’re emotionlessly scrolling down through Facebook without really enjoying any of the content or even truly processing it? That’s information addiction at work. The process of seeking information, in addition to the information itself, can become addicting. That means we’ll keep browsing the internet for bite-sized pieces of information even when we’re not finding it truly rewarding anymore.
We also respond to different kinds of information differently, and online content providers are responding to give us exactly the right kinds of information to feed our addictions. For example, we’re more interested in information that’s relevant to us. This is why Facebook prioritizes content from the friends and family members you’re closest to, or that’s relevant to people in your area. We also respond the most positively to information that confirms our existing views and beliefs. You’re therefore more likely to seek out (and remember) articles that reinforce your perspective. In addition, we often get the biggest reward from “big” pieces of information. That’s one reason why many headlines have become more and more sensationalized, aka more like “clickbait.”
So what can we do? To a certain extent, we’ll always by definition be seeking new information. But we can prioritize information that will actually give us genuine rewards and help us to detach from the endless cycle of seeking. A lot of that comes from slower forms of information acquisition: reading a book, listening to the radio, going for a walk and actually seeing things in person. We can take the time to value these kinds of information and actually pause to enjoy what we’ve learned.
When we talk about information addiction, sometimes it might seem like we’re painting all uses of technology as the product of addiction. However, of course, we need to use technology and access new information sometimes, addiction or no. It can be useful to define differences between what constitutes addiction and what doesn’t, although the lines may sometimes be blurry. Identifying addiction may be helpful in determining if you have a problem and developing strategies to combat it.
Dependence vs. Addiction
Dependence and addiction are terms usually used to discuss a person’s physical and mental relationship to substances such as alcohol, drugs, medicine, and certain foods (caffeine and sugar, for example). Dependence refers to your body’s physical need for a substance. Your body can build up a tolerance for a substance and subsequently increase its dependence on it. On the other hand, you can minimize dependence by tapering your use of the substance. Addiction refers more to our behavior and emotional state. Addiction is characterized by uncontrollable cravings and destructive behavior in order to pursue those cravings. We think the distinction between dependence and addiction is helpful to apply to information.
Dependence on information may be less than ideal for some people, but it’s a manageable way of processing information. You likely need to check your email a few times a day for work, and you need to keep in touch with friends and family using technology. You likely want to stay abreast of the latest news or your favorite interests. There’s nothing wrong with this intake of information. The problem occurs when we start pursuing more and more information and build up our tolerance; this can lead from moderate dependence to addiction.
Remember that dependence is relatively predictable and controllable. Do you need to check your email every morning? That’s reasonable dependence. Do you need to check your email every 15 minutes to see if anything new has arrived? That sounds more like information addiction. You can keep information dependence in check by monitoring how often you pursue new information and thinking about whether it’s improving your life or distracting from it. If your tolerance level is too high, try setting small limits to gradually taper off.
You can usually tell that you’re facing information addiction when your behavior becomes counter-productive. Are you having trouble getting work done because you constantly check your email or Facebook? Are you distracted while spending time with friends because you feel the need to check your phone or update social media? Do you delay going to bed when tired so that you can do a final round of checking social media?
Absorbing information should make our lives easier and better. When it does the opposite, it’s likely because you’re fulfilling an addiction rather than actually benefiting from the information. You should also pay attention to your emotions. Do you feel anxious if separated from your phone or computer? Are you frustrated if new information doesn’t arrive quickly enough in your Facebook or Twitter feed? These feelings can signal that you aren’t in control of your use of information.
While none of us is likely to stop using the internet to gain new information, being addicted can lead to a constant stream of distraction and ultimately a lack of fulfillment. So what causes information addiction? What turns harmless online browsing into an addiction that’s hard to get away from?
Dopamine and Addiction
As with other kinds of addiction, the primary culprit is dopamine: a neurotransmitter in the brain that scientists have long identified as central to reward-seeking behavior. Essentially, when we encounter a reward, a wave of dopamine is released in the brain, which typically makes us feel happy and energetic. New information is a kind of reward, so each time we receive an email or see a new picture posted by a friend, we’re getting a tiny hit of dopamine. Naturally, we’re driven to continually seek more rewards.
Dopamine and Seeking Behaviors
Recently, scientists have emphasized that dopamine isn’t just triggered when we obtain a reward; it’s triggered when we’re engaged in the process of seeking rewards. Basically, it’s not just the reward itself, but the expectation of a reward that makes us feel happy. Dopamine, therefore, drives us to feel motivated and energetic as we search for more information. Evolutionarily, this is a useful trait. Early humans would need to maintain motivation in order to continue seeking out food and resources. Today, it might mean we continually feel motivated as we scroll through Twitter for two hours. The opioid system, on the other hand, causes us to feel pleasure when we attain a reward and can temporarily pause that drive to keep seeking.
How Online Information Becomes Especially Addicting
With information as with other things, addiction develops as you get accustomed to a certain level of input. Just as your body can grow to depend on a level of alcohol or caffeine, your mind can grow accustomed to taking in a certain level of information. As your tolerance goes up, rewards feel less and less meaningful. Essentially, it’s going to be harder for that opioid reward response to shut off your drive to seek. A year ago, you might have felt satiated after watching one YouTube video or reading one news article.
Today, you might feel like you have to go through five videos or articles before you’ve taken in enough information. The internet is especially problematic for information addiction because so many things are designed to feed us bite-sized pieces of information. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and other sites provide quick, interesting updates that we can absorb almost as quickly as we can scroll down the page. This gives us just enough of a reward that we enjoy it, but not enough that our drive to seek is fulfilled. This is why it’s so easy to scroll through online content for hours, even when you’re not particularly enjoying it. It’s information addiction at work.
I could point to interesting e-books or more videos on the subject, but if you understand the issue you know there are other things you could do.
- Wingo T., Nesil T., et al. (2016). Novelty Seeking and Drug Addiction in Humans and Animals: From Behavior to Molecules. Journal of Neuroimmune Pharmacology, 2016, Sep; 11(3): 456–470.