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The Nature of Idea Novelty

By Tojin T. Eapen

Novelty is a complex and multi-faceted concept that has been studied and discussed by researchers from a wide range of disciplines. There are many different definitions and operationalizations of novelty, as well as related ideas and concepts that have been proposed. 

Dimensional Definitions

  • Newness: Novelty is often defined in terms of its newness or uniqueness. This can refer to the degree to which an idea, concept, or product is different from what has come before.
  • Risk and uncertainty: Novelty can also be defined in terms of its potential risks and uncertainties. This can include the degree to which an idea or concept is difficult to implement or uncertain in its potential outcomes.
  • Originality: Novelty can also be defined in terms of its originality or creativeness. This can refer to the degree to which an idea or concept is unique and distinct from existing ideas or concepts.
  • Distance from existing concepts: Novelty can also be measured in terms of the distance from existing concepts. This can include the degree to which an idea or concept is different from what has come before, as well as the degree to which it is similar to existing concepts.
  • Variety and diversity: Novelty can also be defined in terms of the variety and diversity of ideas and concepts. This can refer to the number of different ideas or concepts that are generated, as well as the range of different perspectives and viewpoints that are considered.

Some of the terms associated with novelty include newness, risk, uncertainty, infeasibility, wildness, radicalness, subjectivity, originality, distance, variety, diversity, frequency, expectation, surprise, delight, the "aha" moment, interestingness, ingenuity, implausibility, cleverness, paradigm relatedness, combinatorial novelty, constraints, difference, and asymmetric similarity.

Different forms of novelty have been uncovered including experiential novelty, novelty and pleasure, generative novelty, holistic novelty, incongruity, local versus global novelty, experiential novelty, sensory novelty, emergence, revelational novelty, evolutionary novelty, individual and social novelty.

To better understand the concept of novelty, researchers have used various methods, including factor analysis and interviews, to uncover the underlying dimensions of novelty. By examining these dimensions, researchers have gained substantial insight into the nature of novelty and its relationship to other concepts and ideas. In this article, I discuss the relationship between novelty and some constructs of interest to users, consumers and organizations.

Novelty and Risk

Novelty and risk are often closely linked, as novel ideas or approaches often carry a higher level of risk due to their untested or unknown nature. This can make it difficult for individuals or organizations to determine the potential benefits or drawbacks of pursuing a novel idea, as the probability distribution of the potential outcomes may be wider and more unpredictable.

One way to compare the novelty of an idea is to look at the probability distribution of the potential benefits of the idea. A novel idea is likely to have a wider spread (standard deviation) compared to an idea that is less novel, even if the overall mean expected value (quality) is the same. This is because a novel idea may have a greater range of potential outcomes, both positive and negative, compared to an idea that is more established or familiar.

The benefit of pursuing a novel idea will depend on the cost of implementation and the potential risks associated with failure. If the cost of implementing an idea is low and there is little loss from failure aside from the cost, a company or individual may be more willing to try novel ideas, as they may offer the greatest potential returns. However, if the cost of failure is high, the firm or individual may be more averse to pursuing novel ideas, as the potential risks may outweigh the potential benefits.

In general, we can expect a negative correlation between the potential cost of implementing an idea and the willingness to select novel ideas. This means that as the potential cost of implementing an idea increases, the willingness to pursue novel ideas is likely to decrease. This is because the higher the potential cost of failure, the more cautious an individual or organization may be in taking on new or untested ideas.

Overall, it is important to carefully consider the potential risks and benefits of pursuing a novel idea, and to weigh the potential costs of implementation against the potential returns. By carefully evaluating the level of novelty and risk associated with an idea, individuals and organizations can make informed decisions about whether or not to pursue it.

Novelty and Surprise

Novelty and surprise are often closely linked, as novelty can often involve breaking existing patterns or deviating from what is expected. Surprise occurs when something unexpected happens, disrupting an existing pattern or expectation. This can involve breaking a sequence or disrupting a set of expectations.

For example, consider the sequence 1, 2, 4,... If the next number in the sequence is revealed to be 8 (doubling the previous number), this involves less surprise than if the next number is revealed to be 7 (1+1=2, 2+2=4, 4+3=7). This is because the addition of 3 to the previous number deviates from the expected pattern of doubling, resulting in greater surprise.

The human body processes pleasure in a variety of ways, including through the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. It is not clear whether the same process is used to experience pleasure from novelty, as more research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms involved. However, it is likely that the brain's reward system plays a role in experiencing pleasure from novelty, as it is activated by pleasurable experiences and can influence behavior.

Overall, novelty and surprise can be closely linked, as novelty often involves breaking existing patterns and causing surprise. The human body processes pleasure in a complex way, and more research is needed to understand the exact mechanisms involved in experiencing pleasure from novelty.

Closely related to the notion of surprise are interestingness and delight. Surprise is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for interestingness. Similarly, interestingness is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for delight. Delight is often linked to surprise, as it is the positive emotion that results from experiencing something unexpected or surprising.

Novel ideas are often perceived to be surprising, interesting, and delightful. This may be because novel ideas often break existing patterns or expectations, leading to surprise and interestingness. Delight may result from the combination of surprise and interestingness, as the unexpected and novel nature of the idea leads to positive emotion.

Novelty is sometimes associated with the notion of revelation or covering, where a part or representation is available but is only revealed later on, leading to a perception of novelty. This can involve hiding or covering up certain aspects of an idea or object and revealing them at a later time, creating a sense of surprise or unexpectedness.

Novelty and Frequency

Novelty is often associated with the frequency of occurrence, as something that occurs rarely or infrequently may be perceived as more novel or unusual. However, the perception of novelty may also be influenced by the frequency of other ideas or concepts. For example, consider the sets {1,1,1,1,2} and {1,2,3,4,5}. The item '2' occurs with the same frequency (1/5) in both sets, but it may be perceived as more novel in the first set due to its relative rarity compared to the other items in the set.

In creativity tests, the inverse of the frequency of an idea is often used as a proxy for novelty. This means that ideas that occur less frequently are generally considered to be more novel. However, it is important to note that frequency measures of novelty are typically local measures, meaning they only consider the frequency of an idea within a specific context or set of ideas.

Novelty, Space, and Time

Novelty is often represented in terms of distance, as something that is further away in semantic space may be perceived as more novel. Semantic distance refers to the degree to which an idea is distant or unrelated to other ideas in semantic space.

The concept of newness introduces a time dimension to novelty, as new information is often recent information. This means that an idea that is viewed as new initially, relative to another idea along the time dimension, may be seen as less novel from a spatial perspective. For example, consider an idea that is completely novel and unrelated to any other ideas at the time it is introduced. As time passes and the idea becomes more familiar or integrated into the existing set of ideas, it may be perceived as less novel from a spatial perspective.

Novelty: Difference and Similarity

Novelty is also related to difference and similarity. Asymmetric similarity (Tversky 1977) refers to a situation where one idea or object (A) is said to resemble another (B) more than the reverse. For example, a father may be said to resemble his son more than the son resembles the father. Tversky's Index is a measure of asymmetric similarity that takes into account the number of common and distinctive features between two ideas or objects.

Difference exists when one idea or object (B) contains elements that are not present in another (A), or vice versa. For example, if A is a set of fruits that includes apples and bananas, and B is a set of fruits that includes apples and oranges, there is a difference between the two sets because B contains an element (oranges) that is not present in A.

Overall, novelty is closely linked to both difference and similarity, as the presence of unexpected or unusual elements can contribute to a perception of novelty, while similarities with existing ideas or objects can provide context and familiarity. 

Implementational Notions of Novelty

Novelty is often associated with implementational concepts such as wild, radical, and infeasibility. A wild idea might be one that is far-fetched or too-good to be true, while a radical idea is one that breaks with traditional norms or expectations. Infeasibility refers to the idea that something is not able to be achieved or implemented.

Novelty is often perceived and evaluated as negatively correlated with feasibility, meaning that novel ideas are often seen as less likely to be successfully implemented. One simple explanation for this is that individuals implementing non-novel ideas may have more experience with those ideas, as they can borrow from existing ideas and approaches. This is related to the time dimension of an idea, as more familiar or established ideas may be seen as more feasible due to their longer history and track record.

Emergence of Novelty

It is unclear how novelty emerges from evolutionary processes, whether random or deterministic. One posited mechanism is mutation, where a change in an organism's genetic makeup can lead to the emergence of new traits or characteristics. This process of mutation and natural selection is considered to form basis for the evolution of novel species over time.

Another principle that is understood to contribute to the emergence of novelty is elimination, where certain traits or characteristics are selected against due to their disadvantageous nature. For example, fish living in caves may evolve to lose their eyes over time, as they are not needed in the cave environment and may even be a hindrance. Combinatorial novelty, or the combination of existing elements in new and innovative ways, can also lead to the emergence of novelty. This can involve the combination of ideas, traits, or characteristics in a way that results in an increase in efficiency or effectiveness.

However, the emergence of informational novelty, holistic novelty (where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts), and the emergence of novel properties or behaviors at the collective level is less clear and is an area of research interest. One example well-known example of this domain is the Conway game of life, a cellular automaton that exhibits complex emergent behaviors despite being based on simple rules.


Further Reading

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