Neophilia vs. Neophobia

Strolling through the stark divisions of our society.

American’s love to carve out and label social distinctions: liberal v. conservative, Democrat v. Republican, coastal elite v. flyover “Real America” nation, iPhone v. Android.

And the most important cultural battle of our time, Taylor Swift v. Katy Perry.

While those groupings outline some aspect of the factions we’re witnessing in our culture today, none of those tribal classifications provide a holistic understanding of what cognitively divides us. In reality, the real ideological battles stands between neophiliacs and neophobes.

Futurist author Robert Anton Wilson, who popularized the term, describes neophiliacs as people with a strong affinity for novelty. Neophiliacs are individuals who possess the ability to adapt rapidly to extreme change, lust for adventure, and contain a desire to create or achieve something unique.

According to Christopher Baker, author of Neophiles, this group is by no means revolutionary, as seditious folks are jolted into action by abusive authoritative figures or grotesque social norms. In contrast, neophiliacs are revolutionary by nature.

Neophobes, on the other hand, are unlikely to be joining neophiliacs in their efforts to disrupt industries or join their neophiliac brethren in the streets protesting. Neophobes fear anything new, comprising a persistent and abnormal fear. Neophobes adhere strictly to norms and traditional values. Often, it can manifest as the reluctance to try new things or pivot from routine. A neophobic child often tends to reject unknown or novel foods.

Neophiliacs are more welcoming of new groups into their camp, are open to updating what values they fight for, and more easily adapt to cultural and commercial conditions threatening their current lifestyle.

Neophobes, quite frankly, are not. Neophobes are inhospitable individuals, deeply hesitant to understand new ideas, and lukewarm to the idea of cultural trends evolving. Wilson argues neophobia strongly correlates with older conservatism as individuals become more rigid and less adventurous as they have kids, experience many life challenges, and decline in health (this explains why voters tend to become more conservative as they age).

But regardless of age, any flavor of conservatism is deeply linked to neophobia. As Derek Thompson chronicles in his fascinating book Hitmakers: The Science of Popularity in the Age of Distraction when marketing teams survey conservatives across different generations, race, classes, and regions they all held deeply neophobic characteristics (when examining liberals there were varying shades of neophilia and neophobia among age, race, and class).

But romanticizing neophilia is perilous. Neophiliacs have an irrational aversion of tradition, repetition and tend to bore quickly. They often lack faith or interest in commitment and enjoy accelerating change often without considering the consequences.

Open source programmer Eric S. Raymond argues that neophiliac personalities are particularly prevalent in industries such as high technology and computer science. Which makes sense. The digital world has been a new portal for neophiliacs to design transformative products to break down norms, but also create fake avenues of connection and exacerbate a younger generation’s desire to commit (today roughly 60% of Millennials prefer promiscuity over a monogamous relationship).

In my mind, contemplating whether we should be more neophobic or neophiliac constitutes the wrong debate. There are undoubtedly benefits to having traditions, serious commitments, and a common set of beliefs in your lifestyle for these values are the bedrock of strong communities. Humans will always desire a safe space and will be tethered to their values instilled during their adolescents.

But neophiliacs change the world and put us on a path towards progress. A penchant for change, openness, and desire to upgrade is a mindset that lifts all aspects of society. Braudel, the great historian noted, “It may not be a coincidence that the parts of the world that were the first to undergo democratic revolutions and explore new models of political organization where the ones in which fashion was the most advanced.”

Humanity must scrutinize the pace and direction of neophiliaics’ attempts at disruption, always placing it in context and ensuring that their lust for change serve society more broadly and equitably.

As a Libra, I’ve tried very hard to balance neophobic and neophiliac tendencies (side note: accepting astrology is that rare trait that can be seen as a neophobic or neophiliac). I’ve slowly come to admit that being more neophiliac spices up life for the better. For the longest time, I was hesitant to make the shift from paper-bound books to the Kindle. Eventually, I succumbed, realizing that the only way for society to progress, one must switch things up and turn the metaphorical page in life.

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