Driven by the Unfamiliar: Novelty as a Basic Psychological Need

Sam Woolfe
5 min readFeb 5, 2024

In previous blog posts, I have introduced and explored the concept of the will to novelty: the idea that we are motivated to experience newness, difference, and variety (see my posts here, here, and here). Reading more about the psychology of novelty seeking, I came across some literature on the self-determination theory of human motivation. This theory relies on the concept of basic psychological needs, and some psychologists claim that novelty could be an additional one. To bolster this claim, they have conducted studies that seem to indicate precisely this conclusion — in other words, the idea that humans are driven by a will to novelty.

Self-Determination Theory

Self-determination theory is a theory of human motivation that concerns innate psychological needs and intrinsic motivation (which pertains to the motivation behind people’s choices in the absence of external influences, or how our behaviour is self-motivated and self-determined). This kind of motivation, therefore, contrasts with extrinsic motivation. The latter refers to doing an activity to obtain external rewards (these can be tangible, such as money or grades, or intangible, such as praise or fame).

When we are intrinsically motivated by something, we pursue it for its own sake because it is inherently interesting and satisfying. Conversely, an extrinsic motive involves doing something that may not feel rewarding in itself (e.g. doing exams) to obtain something else that we value. Psychologists Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan introduced and defended self-determination theory in their book Intrinsic Motivation and Self-Determination in Human Behaviour (1985). Of course, people are driven by external factors, such as rewards, punishments, and societal pressures; but self-determination theory posits that intrinsic motivation is essential to our personal growth and well-being.

Deci and Ryan argue that people are motivated to change and grow by three innate (and universal) psychological needs. According to self-determination theory, we need the following to achieve psychological growth (which all contribute to our sense of being self-determined):

  • Autonomy: People need to feel in control of their behaviours and goals. We need the sense, in other words, that we are able to initiate action that will result in real and meaningful changes in our lives.
  • Competence: People need to feel that they have gained mastery of tasks and skills, which they believe will lead to success and the achievement of goals.
  • Relatedness: People need to experience a sense of connectedness, belonging, affiliation, and attachment to other people.

Deci and Ryan also argue that extrinsic motivators can sometimes negatively affect self-determination. This is because the introduction of rewards in situations where people are already intrinsically motivated can shift the individual’s perception of the cause of their behaviour from their intrinsic interest in the task to an external reward. This ends up undermining their intrinsic motivation.

Lacking self-determination impedes our personal growth. For example, failing to create a personal or work project can lead to different outcomes, depending on whether the person in question is high or low in self-determination. If they are high in this trait, they will admit their fault, believe they can do something to fix the problem, and take action to correct the mistake. But if a person low in self-determination were in the same situation, they will instead look to the external world for answers (either looking for people or circumstances to blame, refusing to acknowledge their role in the mistake, or only feeling motivated to correct the mistake if rewards and obligations are involved). People low in self-determination tend to feel a lack of control when it comes to various situations in their lives.

Many of the things we do are both intrinsically and extrinsically motivated (such as writing a book), and activities vary in how strongly intrinsic and extrinsic factors are present in our motivation. Many behaviours lie in the middle of a continuum between self-determined and non-self-determined behaviours. Most actions are not purely self-determined or non-self-determined.

Novelty as an Additional Psychological Need

Humans have sometimes been referred to as a novelty-loving species. I believe this is an accurate description that reflects our evolutionary, technological, and cultural history. One could argue that we are not intrinsically motivated by novelty since the newness or freshness of something is typically a sign of a potential reward, rather than a reward in itself. For example, we find exploring a new environment enjoyable, not in itself, but because (evolutionarily speaking) this might lead to the discovery of new food sources and opportunities for shelter and safety.

However, some psychologists suggest that novelty can be considered an intrinsic motivation and basic psychological need alongside autonomy, competence, and relatedness. In a 2016 paper published in Personality and Individual Differences, a group of psychologists proposed novelty as a basic psychological need in self-determination theory and developed a new measure to assess novelty need satisfaction: the Novelty Need Satisfaction Scale (NNSS). They performed two studies (one with adults and one with secondary school students) using this scale, as well as other measures of psychological needs from the perspective of self-determination theory and psychological well-being.

The researchers found that novelty need satisfaction predicted life satisfaction (study 1) and intrinsic motivation (study 2) independent of the other three psychological needs (autonomy, competence, and relatedness). A subsequent paper from the same authors, published in Motivation and Emotion in 2020, highlighted further studies they carried out. In line with their earlier study, they discovered that novelty satisfaction positively predicted autonomous motivation and vitality, life satisfaction, and meaning in life, while its frustration predicted a worsening of well-being. There are also numerous studies showing that exposure to novelty entails a range of benefits:

  • Improvements to memory and brain plasticity
  • Facilitation of learning
  • Promotion of active decision-making
  • Positive relationships
  • Gaining new perspectives and meaning
  • Helping people cope with challenges and find rational solutions
  • Enhanced creativity

Moreover, many studies point to the negative effects of boredom resulting from unvaried and repetitive stimuli in environments, including a higher susceptibility to cognitive dysregulation, depressive symptoms and anxiety, increased drug use, hopelessness, loneliness, and aggression.

A separate 2020 paper published in Motivation and Emotion investigated the plausibility of novelty-variety as a potential basic psychological need (and therefore be essential for motivation, psychological growth/development, well-being, and optimal functioning). The psychologists in this particular study carried out three studies to try to establish this. In order for novelty to meet the criteria of a psychological need, it must: have a positive effect on well-being, universally affect all people regardless of age and novelty preference, cause a decrease in well-being when absent, and cause benefits to most areas of life. The evidence suggests that novelty satisfies all of these criteria, meaning it behaves very similarly to other psychological needs, in that it appears to be essential for life satisfaction and fulfilment.

The growing psychological research on novelty as an innate, basic human need lends support to the notion of the will to novelty. It is not just our neophiliac (novelty-loving) tendencies that make us unique as a species but also how crucial this variety-seeking is to our overall well-being and flourishing.

Originally published at https://www.samwoolfe.com on February 5, 2024.

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Sam Woolfe

I'm a freelance writer, journalist, and author with interests in philosophy, ethics, psychology, and mental health. Website: www.samwoolfe.com