Novelty

Snow in the Middle East has recently caused significant disruptions in an area not accustomed to it. It is likely, however, that if the same storm hit a city in, let’s say, Canada, life would go on as normal. Preparation, such as the availability of snow plows, or even drivers skilled in the art of driving in snow, makes a large difference.

As a football fan, I’m very interested in the strategic battle between the coaches. Each is looking for a way to gain an advantage and counter the strengths of the other team. The little adjustments, invisible to almost everyone, are what usually separates winning and losing in the pros. Tactics must keep changing, since novelty is one of the most potent weapons a team possesses. What works for a time will almost assuredly not work for long once the flaws are discovered and countermeasures are employed. Fads like the wildcat come in and out of favor as teams lean to prepare for the latest methods. This is somewhat akin to the arms race between parasites and hosts – bacteria and viruses must constantly evolve to stay ahead of the host’s defenses.

When thinking about the power of novelty, which, by definition is always changing, I’ve been pondering some ways that people become prepared (or inured) to the challenges they face. In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, he makes the case for the benefits of being exposed to, and overcoming, adversity. He cites the example of Londoners during the Blitz. The Germans intended the bombing of civilian targets to intimidate the population and reduce their will to continue fighting. Gladwell contends that it had the exact opposite effect, since survivors of a “remote miss” – that is, an explosions a few blocks away – feel less afraid, since they came out unscathed. There is almost an adrenaline rush, the feeling of having bested death, that can come in these kinds of situations. The movie Ender’s Game considers the rightness of rigorous, even harsh, battle training for young recruits for the purpose of producing hardened soldiers. When it comes to parenting, however, shielding children from adversity is not always in their long term best interest.

Calvin’s Father believes that adversity builds character

Mark Twain had a very thought-provoking short story titled: “The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg.” The main premise is that the supposedly upstanding citizens of a town had gained their reputation by scrupulously avoiding temptation. However, when the possibility of ill-gotten gain was put before them, they acted worse than we would expect from even an average person. Like the Native Americans that had no natural immunity to the smallpox carried by the Europeans, the nominally virtuous people had tried so hard to avoid temptation that they did had not developed any methods to resist it. It was said that Jim Henson never got sick, so perhaps he wasn’t able to realize that he had a serious illness. Speaking of which, Vaccinations work by preparing the bodies adaptive immune system by purposely infecting the body with a weakened or dead pathogen. Disney made a movie “Defense Against Invasion,” that links proper inoculations to military preparedness. 

I’ve always wondered about the appeal of horror movies. One theory that probably makes sense is that some people enjoy the feeling of having release after enduring a frightening situation. The unknown is inherently scary, since there is no way to judge how bad it is going to be. This is why good horror directors build psychological tension by not revealing the monster until near the end. Once the monster is reveled, it is a known, although formidable, quantity. After the movie is over, the audience breathes a collect sign of relief. “well, that wasn’t so bad… we all survived.”

We should be careful however, because there is some element of survivorship bias lurking here, in the sense that adversity doesn’t build character as much as reveal it. Take a population of plants exposed to a  weed killer. Only the most resistant survive, so the average hardiness of the population is increased, even if all the survivors were harmed and thus less healthy. This may also be an explanation for the observed phenomenon called hormesis.

Among Friedrich Nietzsche most famous quotes is “what does not kill me makes me stronger.” Nicholas Nassim Taleb writes in “Antifragile“:

“Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty. Yet, in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better”