Novelty Bias: Avoiding the “Shiny Object Syndrome” in SMS
  • Jason Starke

Novelty Bias: Avoiding the “Shiny Object Syndrome” in SMS


We are all susceptible to it. You know, when something new and shiny comes along we have a tendency to think that the novel solution will be the answer to all of our problems. An overt example of this is the long lines outside of Apple stores when a new iPhone is released. Does the new phone have critical updated features that solve problems the older models did not? Maybe or maybe not, but the “new-ness” of the product certainly has alluring powers. This allure - called the novelty bias - has a powerful influence on us.

In specific instances, the novelty bias can hijack our focus when trying to concentrate on a task or project. How many times have you been working on something when the familiar chime of an email or text sounds? Do you stop to check it? According to Bailey (2018) and Carter (2020), it is the new-ness of the interruption, the potential for reward, that takes our focus from the task to the novel item. On a more general scale, the novelty bias can overcome rationalization for determining effective solutions to problems. Desai (2019) noted that this novelty bias creates a proclivity to select a new solution at the expense of historically successful solutions. In researching clinical trials, Desai noticed that novel interventions were frequently chosen over current ones despite little proof that they were more effective. Also, in researching web information, Metaxa-Kakavouli et al. (2016) found that novel, uncommon subjects were over-represented and common one under-represented. The novelty bias is a powerful influence that can even overcome life-benefiting drives in order to obtain a new experience (Carter, 2020).

But what does this have to do with safety management? The novelty bias could disrupt or derail safety management efforts in your organization. When a new tool, methodology, taxonomy, or assessment comes on the market, the novelty bias may influence you to abandon what has been working for unfounded promises the novel solution will provide a profound improvement. For example, a different provider may offer a new feature which may not even be beneficial to the core SMS processes, but because of the novelty, it influences the organization to procure an entirely new safety management solution. The allure alone of switching to a new solution in itself may be powerful enough to make the change. The result could be the requirement to learn a new solution, change safety management processes, and adjust documentation to facilitate the change. Novelty, however, does wear off and all that is left is the usability of the solution. If it turns out it does not provide additional benefits to the core processes and efficiency, then the effort associated with the change was all for naught. Additionally, you may be left with a solution that is sub-par to the original solution that was replace.

Awareness of the novelty bias is one of the first steps to overcoming its influence. Desai (2019) also recommends the development of a truly unbiased comparison. In other words, list out the successes and benefits of the current solution and compare it to the verified successes and benefits of the novel one. If there are tangible additional benefits to the novel solution, then that is a sign to proceed forward. However, if the novel solution only has features (i.e., “bells and whistles”) not proven to improve upon the required functionality, but only look nice, then a switch may be more harmful than beneficial. Remember, the novelty bias has the power to override rationalization (Carter, 2020; Desai, 2019).


The novelty bias is a powerful influence that tends to distract us and turn our attention to shiny, new things. This bias can overpower our rationalization to determine if a novel solution is truly more beneficial than the currently used one. When faced with a new solution, remember SOS - shiny object syndrome - and take the time to compare the old with the new to see if true benefit can be realized.

References

Bailey, C. (2018). Hyperfocus: How to be more productive in a world of distraction.

Carter, C. (2020). Flow class: Countering novelty bias. Christine Carter. https://www.christinecarter.com/2017/01/the-novelty-bias/

Desai, T. P. (2019). Out with the old, in with the new: The role of novelty bias. Medscape.

Metaxa-Kakavouli, D., Rusak, G., Teevan, J., & Bernstein, M. S. (2016). The web Is flat: The inflation of uncommon experiences online. Proceedings of the 2016 CHI Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI EA ’16, 2893–2899. https://doi.org/10.1145/2851581.2892424

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