TMCnet News

[June 09, 2006]


(New Scientist Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge)ARE you tempted to trade in your mobile phone every time a new model comes out, upgrade your laptop every year or part-exchange your car as soon as the shine wears off? If so, you could be suffering from neophilia: literally, the love of the new. "Suffering" is a bit of a stretch, since most of us are neophiliacs to some degree. It is the curse of our consumerist culture or a blessing if you're a manufacturer or advertiser.

But is it doing any real harm? Actually, yes. Neophilia is at the root of the growing problem of hazardous waste in the US and other developed countries. More than 100 million mobile phones were discarded in the US last year, along with tens of millions of computers. It's a similar story for electronic games, monitors, televisions and other IT products. Many of these are made of toxic materials containing heavy metals such as lead, zinc, chromium, cadmium and mercury.

What's more, our enthusiasm for new products is encouraging what the writer Giles Slade calls "planned obsolescence" the tendency of manufacturers to artificially limit the useful lifespan of their products so consumers will soon have to replace them (Made to Break: Technology and obsolescence in America
, Harvard University Press, 2006).

Who exactly qualifies as a neophiliac? Colin Campbell, a sociologist at the University of York, UK, and one of the first to look into the phenomenon, defines three types. The first, known as "pristinians", have an almost pathological desire for things that are pristine and fresh. They replace furniture, clothes, even the living-room carpet at the first sign of wear, often with identical models. The second group are the "trailblazing consumers" who seek cutting-edge innovations and technologies, a demographic comprised mostly of young men. The third and most common type are the victims of fashion, the fickle consumers who succumb to the lure of advertising.

Is anyone immune? People who are middle-aged or older are far less likely to have neophilia. Robert McCrae of the US National Institute on Aging and other researchers have shown that people become more resistant to novelty as they grow older. The primatologist Robert Sapolsky estimates that most people's "window of receptivity" closes for fashion novelties by age 23, new music genres by age 35 and new foods by 39. This is not just a human trait: old animals are not receptive to new foods either. As they say, you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

This suggests a strong biological influence in a person's desire for novelty. Some people may be genetically more disposed to neophilia than others: a recent study by psychiatrists at the Yamagata University School of Medicine in Japan suggests that differences in people's enthusiasm for novelty depends partly on variations in the gene for monoamine oxidase A (Psychiatric Genetics
, vol 16, p 55). Think about that next time you gaze through the window of a mobile phone store.

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