The novelty effect: how switching to a different word processor can improve your writing

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Writer Clive Thompson (a frequent contributor to Boing Boing) has an excellent regular column on Medium. One of his recent articles explains how he switches to another word processor when reviewing a draft. He says seeing the words in a new window, font, or interface gives him the distance he needs to see work with fresh eyes. Clive thinks (and I agree) that this is an example of the novelty effect:

So why did switching to a strange new writing environment suddenly unblock me?

I think it’s because of what’s called the “novelty effect”: every time we change our technological environment, our performance improves temporarily. There is something about the weirdness just a little out of step with our new situation that invigorates us.

Psychologists first noticed the novelty effect in the 1930s, during a fascinating experiment at Western Electric’s Hawthorne factory. Federal researchers decided to change light levels to see if that would improve worker productivity. First, the researchers increased the lighting levels. Productivity has increased! Then they experimented with lowering the light levels. Again, productivity has increased.

This is what is so interesting about the novelty effect: it doesn’t matter what type changes you make to your work environment, as long as you make a cash. As long as it makes your work look slightly askew, you get a novelty effect. (Fun fact: because the discovery was made at the Hawthorne factory, it’s also sometimes referred to as the “Hawthorne effect”.)

That, I think, is a big part of why switching to my old computer suddenly pushed me into a rewrite state of mind. The old version of Word – and the different laptop screens, and even the crappy old keyboard – made the file suddenly different.


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