New Experiences: Awesome or Scary?

What makes someone or something “cool?”

It’s a complicated question with several scientific explanations. A large part is explained by the appeal of things that are new and different.

New experiences are especially rewarding because they help us gain new physical resources or aid in the development of knowledge, skills, and abilities. There seems to be—across many living creatures—an attraction to the novel and unfamiliar.


But then again, the world is full of dangerous and potentially harmful things—how is it that we are still so motivated to approach new things (many of which we probably should avoid)?

To further complicate the issue, there is a great deal of evidence that humans and other animals react much more strongly to the negative than to the positive. A stronger reaction to negative than positive can be observed in the brain within milliseconds of exposure to a new stimulus, and this tendency influences not only our emotional reactions, but also later decisions, learning, and memory.


Is this a paradox?

Most living creatures have both an attraction, and aversion, to things that are new and different.

Can it really be both?

To understand how this works, we need to think beyond the end-product, for example, whether we choose to approach something or to avoid it.

If we instead think about the different underlying systems that lead to that end-product, things start to make a lot more sense.


2 different features of the same basic process

A series of classic experiments (described here) that provide a nice illustration.

Animals in the studies were exposed to something positive (like food) or something negative (like an electric shock). After that, the researchers stopped them with a harness that was used to measure how hard they would try to pull toward or away from it (as a proxy for motivation).

The animals pulled harder (toward the food or away from the shock) when they were hungry or the shocks were more intense, and when they were closer to obtaining it than when they were further away.

But the relationship between motivation and distance was not the same: as distance was reduced, there was a much stronger increase in pulling away from a shock than pulling toward the food. This illustrates negativity bias—our responses to something negative as it becomes more intense increase much more rapidly than our responses to something positive.


What about when there is conflict?

What if the thing in question potentially provides something positive (like food) and/or something negative (like a shock)?

The animal’s responses in these studies demonstrated a positivity offset—the motivation to approach (such as pulling toward food when hungry) outweighs the motivation to avoid (such as fear of a shock) at the lower intensities (slightly hungry, mild shock) but the pattern increasingly changes and reverses at higher intensities.

At a certain point, a strong enough shock outweighs a comparably strong hunger.


These two basic phenomena—positivity offset and negativity bias—have since been repeatedly demonstrated in humans, using a range of measures and a variety of pictures, words, sounds, and even games of chance and risk-taking behaviors.

And they both vary in people much like personality traits.

Some people have much a stronger positivity offset than others, some people have a stronger negativity bias. How about you?

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