Novelty and Predictability

Driving toward home always seems faster than driving from home to a destination. When we head away from home, perhaps we are anxious to get there, causing us to be more conscious of the passage of time as we wait at lights, search for streets, or fret about arriving on time. Or, perhaps as we get closer to home, the scenery becomes more familiar, so we increasingly recognize the progress we are making toward our goal, making time seem to pass more quickly. Another explanation is that home may represent security to us, so we relax as we get closer we get to home; whereas, when we are traveling away from home, we may think about how we will manage our social interactions and wonder how well our engagement will go. Nervousness and anxiety tend to make time seem to pass slowly. The differences in our perception of time when arriving compared to leaving is one surprising element of nonverbal communication.

The differences in how quickly or slowly time passes may also occur when engaged in routine compared to unusual matters. Routine is a runner’s friend. The runner who covers the same course repeatedly knows all the landmarks for each mile and can push ahead easily, not thinking about the total distance, simply trying to get to the next mile marker. Do you think a person who set out on a run thinking about running for four or five hours straight would be as likely to finish a marathon as someone who thinks about running for part of that long time, just the ten minutes needed to get to next mile. The four or five hours would feel like forever if the runner watched the clock count down rather than focusing on a shorter piece of the journey. Having routines in life is good, but every once in a while, breaking the routine–trying something new–and looking at the big picture can be refreshing.

I had one of those days last week where I needed a break from the routine. Soon after stepping out of my car, I decided not to follow my usual running pattern at a local park. I decided to run wherever I felt like it, without any plan. When I had barely gotten underway, I had an inspiration. My friend, Carl Dauber, must have been looking down on me. He was a friend of mine who had the ability to look at things sideways. He took the typical, routine, everyday assumptions we made about the commonplace, and brought a new, and often, humorous perspective to them. I would avoid the routine, I thought, by running sideways.

I regularly track my runs with the Map My Run software I installed on my phone. It dawned on me, as I thought about how to make this a unique run, that the software would sketch my run as it followed my movements. So, I decided to see if I could make art with my run or at least create an artistic drawing by using myself as the brush and the cell phone map as the canvas. This is exactly the kind of thing Carl would do. He would have a creative idea, enact it, show me the results, and then, after I figured out what he had done, we’d share a good laugh. So, anyway, I did some novel sideways running. I weaved back and forth for a ribbon effect in one parking lot. I turned around and backtracked a few times here and there. I tried not to run over the same ground. I ran through the woods, off the paved paths.

After running like this, sideways, for a few miles, an open field called to me. I wanted to sign my work, so, I ran in the grass, trying to create fifteen foot long letters spelling out my first name. I hope no-one was watching. Have you seen Ohio State’s band do the script Ohio on the football field? That was going through my mind as I tried to keep the letters even and make it all flow on the map.

How do my new GPS Art turn out? Well, I discovered that Map My Run’s GPS is not a very precise tool. It straightened out all my zigs and zags. The overall pattern was nice, but it was not distinguishable from other runs I’ve recorded. Except for the signature. Unfortunately, the script was not a flowing curve like OSU’s band would do. The letters were not all that symmetrical. I could make out the letters in the signature, but you would have a hard time reading the word “mark.”

I may try drawing again some day using Map My Run now that I know its limitations. How would it handle a huge spiral? What about large crisscrossing X’s? Would walking make the GPS track my movements more precisely? Could I use the “pause” button to eliminate lines I don’t want in my design? Is anyone else trying to do this kind of “performance art”?

The drive to and from home and the routine and creative running styles reflect a tension we experience between a desire for predictability and an opposite desire we have for novelty. We seek novel experiences; we want to travel to new places and try new things. But, we also want stability. We like having routines. We take comfort in knowing what to expect and in doing things we already know how to do. Leslie Baxter, and other theorists argue that tensions like these exists in relationships. We like having a steady partner, someone dependable that we can count on who will provide us with security. However, predictability can be boring; we also want novelty. We like getting off the beaten path. We don’t want a boring partner. What makes relationships difficult, according to this theory, is that we want BOTH novelty and predictability, even though they are opposites. That generates a tension that will never go away; it has to be managed.

We could stay at home all the time in our comfort zone and avoid anxiety. We could be the partner who is steady as a rock, never surprising anyone. On the other hand, we could always be off traveling to new places having novel experiences. We could change drastically without warning. Both these extremes may increase the tension. We have to find a balance between novelty and predictability to keep things fresh while providing the security our partner needs.

What makes attaining this balance a challenging task is that the target is always moving. One partner may need more stability at the start of a new job, following the addition of a new family member, or after a return to school, during which time, the other partner may long for new experiences. As we age, our needs change and so does our desire for novelty.

I wonder if the failure to manage the tension between novelty and predictability is partially responsible for the so-called mid-life crisis. Relationships tend to become more predictable as time passes. Passion, which is a mixed emotion that includes surprise, dissipates over time as people no longer find their significant others as surprising as they once did. Men, typically, entering an age where they begin to realize that time is short and knowing they won’t accomplish all they had hoped, begin to see their lives and the future as being too predictable. They irrationally blame their wives for holding them back. The novelty of raising the kids may have worn off or the kids may have left home. The wives are shocked when the mid-life crisis hits because they have not changed; they have been the steady, predictable partner. They see their husbands doing crazy things, acting like they were twenty years younger and/or trying to trade them in for a newer less predictable model.

When we are young, we struggle with trying to be predictable and dependable, i.e., with trying to be the person who can be counted on. At that time, we are learning and changing, so it’s difficult to be steady for someone else. As we get older, we tend to become more set in our ways. For most older relationships, novelty is more challenging.

If Baxter’s analyzes are right, we need both novelty and predictability throughout our lives and we need to be in synch with our partners in terms of how those associated needs get satisfied.

We need the security that comes from traveling home. We need the ability to set meaningful goals and work our way towards them. We also need to be able to shake things up at times, to cast off the routine and do things sideways. But, we can’t manage the tension on our own. We must give and take, be supportive and spontaneous, provide a predictable foundation to the relationship, but be willing to try new things.

It’s complicated, but if you understand math, it all adds up. There are two people but one relationship. If one person wants more novelty that the other doesn’t, the couple may end up with a division problem. Little things can multiply if we don’t work on the problem by managing the tension.

So, think about your life together. Too predictable or too novel? Don’t just think about this on your own, ask.

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