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Novelty in Music and Markets: The Evolutionary Forces Behind our Appreciation of the Unfamiliar

All great musicians share one thing in common: the ability to combine the familiar with the unfamiliar to create something novel and intriguing but, at the same time, not alienating and absurd. It’s Dylan going electricit’s the Beastie Boys combining punk and hip-hop; and it’s Zappa incorporating jazz and rock. Going too far in either direction is risky. As any one hit wonder will tell you, too much familiarity is a career killer. And the work of musicians like John Cage illustrates that music which is completely unconventional is usually rejected. Daniel Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music, explains this perfectly: “As music unfolds, the brain constantly updates its estimates of when new beats will occur, and takes satisfaction in matching a mental beat with a real-in-the-world one… [but it also] takes delight when a skillful musician violates [an] expectation in an interesting way – a sort of musical joke that we’re all in on. Music breathes, speeds up, and slows down just as the real world does, and our cerebellum finds pleasure in adjusting itself to stay synchronized”.

I think the same can be said for brands, which, like a musician or musical group, cannot exist by just being the same thing over and over again. They must innovate and change to maintain their novelty. But they cannot be too groundbreaking also – just ask the folks who invented New Coke or the engineers who created the Poniac Aztek about what happens when you do that. Our desire to want the novel and the familiar helps explain why half the products we see have those “new look, same great taste” gimmicks.

So what are the Beatles, Dylans or Zappas of marketing campaigns? What were the advertisements that changed paradigms and challenged the way we viewed things? What were the brands that successfully introduced a new look and a new taste?

One example that comes to mind is Debeers’ “a diamond is forever” campaign. This was groundbreaking because it not only sold diamonds, it convinced an entire society that an engagement required a really expensive diamond. They took a completely unfamiliar concept and made it into a cultural norm. Bottled water is another. Recall (if you can) that until the 1970s, gas stations and grocery stores did not have shelves full of bottled water. Somehow, though, marketers persuaded consumers to start buying something that they could get free. Again, they took an unconventional idea and made it conventional (Dasani and Aquafina, by the way, come from the same source as your tap water).

The acute reader will realize that what I am describing here – our tendency to look for new things on the horizon while remaining at bay – does not just help us understand good music or marketing, but many other things in life. From girlfriends and boyfriends, to books and movies, to architecture and visual art, to iphones and ipads, we are “informavores”. We love new things as long as they aren’t too new. The question is: where does this trait come from? One place to start looking is evolutionary psychology literature.

Here’s one argument: natural selection favored intelligence, which was a capacity used to understand novelty. The line of reasoning goes something like this:

What is now known as general intelligence may have originally evolved as a domain-specific adaptation to deal with evolutionarily novel, nonrecurrent problems… there were likely occasional problems that were evolutionarily novel and nonrecurrent, which required our ancestors to think and reason in order to solve.  Such evolutionarily novel problems may have included, for example:

1.  Lightning has struck a tree near the camp and set it on fire.  The fire is now spreading to the dry underbrush.  What should I do?  How could I stop the spread of the fire?  How could I and my family escape it?  (Since lightning never strikes the same place twice, this is guaranteed to be a nonrecurrent problem.)…

…Because such problems were not recurrent features of the ancestral environment, there are no innate solutions provided by existing psychological adaptations…. from this perspective, general intelligence may not have been very important – no more important than any other domain-specific psychological adaptation – in its evolutionary origin but it became universally important in modern life, only because our current environment is almost entirely evolutionarily novel.

From this we can reasonably speculate that our propensity to look for and appreciate novelty comes from our intelligent novel-seeking and novel-solving ancestors who natural selection favored. But this line of reasoning has serious holes. For one, if it’s true, then intelligent people should listen to the best, most innovative music. They don’t. By the same logic, they should gravitate towards the most novel products. But this, of course, is backwards; intelligence people shouldn’t be persuaded by shallow gimmicks.

At this point I don’t have an answer. Evolutionary psychology is still quiet young, so its speculations are probably lacking as well. But I will say that those who point to cultural norms or societal trends as reasons for why we buy what we buy or why we latch onto the brands we latch onto are only telling half of the story. The other, far more important half is the one our ancestors and evolutionary psychologists tell us. It regards our older and much more ingrained and primitive motivations. In trying to answer the question of why we seek novelty in music, brands or anything else, the first places we should look are the biological systems which were responsible for moving us out of the trees and onto the savannah.

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