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This One Question Predicts How You Feel About New Technology

It's not about the technology. It's about you.

Some technologies are universally accepted today, like television.

Others are the subject of great debate and concern, like social media.

What’s the difference?

A new study offers a fascinating answer: A person’s perceptions of technology — and whether they think a particular innovation is good or bad — has a lot to do with whether they are “old enough to remember that technology’s introduction to society.”

In other words, who came first — the new technology, or you?

“Resistance will be higher among those who witness the emergence of a new technology than for those who never lived without it,” says the paper by psychology professors Adam H. Smiley and Matthew Fisher, published in the journal Psychological Science.

The way I see it, this is an important finding for two big reasons:

  • It helps us understand, in a much bigger way, why we react poorly to new things.

  • It can show us how to embrace new things — and to help others do it, too.

Let’s dig into the study, and how to use its lessons.

Smiley and Fisher wanted to solve a puzzle: Why are new technologies often met with fear, and yet those fears are almost never realized? After all, today’s concerns about social media and screen time are strong echoes of past fears that (as I’ve chronicled in my podcast) novels were too addictive and that teddy bears would destroy young girls’ morals.

“People fail to appreciate that new technology can bring about change without bringing about harm,” the researchers write.

Other research has chronicled this phenomenon; I especially love University of Cambridge psychologist Amy Orben’s “Sisyphean Cycle of Technology Panics,” which I wrote about recently in Future. But Smiley and Fisher wanted to go deeper into the human cause of this concern.

They wondered: What is happening in our brains that makes us fear these new things?

To find out, they ran a series of tests.

The first one was the most fun. They contacted 400 participants, divided them into two groups, and then told each person about an obscure piece of technology called aerogel. It’s a synthetic, ultralight material that’s widely used today.

Everyone was told the same basic information about aerogel, except for one critical distance: In the first group, each person was told that aerogel was created 15 years before they were born. If you were born in 1980, for example, you’d have been told it was made in 1965. In the second group, each person was told that aerogel was created 15 years after they were born — or 1995, for that person born in 1980.

The researchers then asked: “How would you describe the impact of aerogel on society?"

The results are remarkable: When people believed that aerogel was made before they were born, they were much more likely to say it had a positive impact on society.

When people thought aerogel was created after they were born, they were more skeptical of it.

In three other studies, the researchers tested people’s attitudes towards many real technologies. The pattern was consistent: Someone’s age — and whether they were alive before or after the invention of a particular technology — strongly predicted how they’d feel about that technology.

Why is this happening? It’s “status quo bias.”

“People tend to prefer states of the world to remain consistent,” the researchers write. This isn’t just their own observation; it’s been confirmed by decades of research. They cite some of those studies, including these particularly colorful ones:

  • “People often take the easiest course of action: doing nothing or keeping the current course of action.” (study)

  • “Simply imagining a political candidate winning an election leads people to rate that event as more likely and more positive.” (study).

  • “People rate acupuncture more favorably when it is described as 2,000 years old instead of 200 years old.” (study)

And now, of course, we’re applying that same lens to our world’s most transformative innovations. “We propose that new technology challenges the status quo, leading it to be viewed more negatively,” the researchers write.

There’s a logic to loving the status quo, of course: If something has stood the test of time, it is seemingly safe and helpful. But the flip side of this logic can get us into trouble — because even though older things feel more trustworthy, newness is not a good reason for distrust.

So how do we learn to embrace the new?

In their paper, Smiley and Fisher offer some advice to innovators: “New innovations should be connected to more established products,” they write. “By tethering new inventions to preexisting technologies, they may be more likely to be considered part of the status quo.”

That was gratifying to read — because in my new book, Build for Tomorrow, I offer a framework to do just that.

As I study the history of innovation and track how entrepreneurs introduce new ideas to the world, I have found a consistent theme: People hate new things, but they love better versions of old things.

As a result, whenever an innovator introduces something to the world, they must build what I call a “bridge of familiarity” — essentially starting with what a consumer is already comfortable with, and then helping them connect that old thing to their new solution.

But this isn’t just useful for entrepreneurs and innovators. It’s something we can also use individually, as we struggle to embrace or find comfort with new things.

For example, imagine you’re going through a career change. It can feel scary, in large part because you may feel unprepared or unqualified for whatever comes next. But in truth, a lot of your skills are transferrable. You are more qualified than you know! So the more you can identify those old skills, and envision how the things you already know will apply to what you’re doing next, the more confident you’ll become in embracing the new.

In this way, you’re able to give yourself the greatest combination of all — new and old at the same time.

Thanks to Odysseus Galanis, who alerted me to this study on Twitter!

Traveling? Look Out For Me!

This One Question Predicts How You Feel About New Technology

As you may know, my book came out on Tuesday — and here's been one of the greatest thrills of the week:

My book is at airports! ✈️ ✈️ ✈️

Nobody told me this would happen. I'm just learning about it on social media. So far I've received photos from LGA, LAX, Philly, Newark, and Minneapolis. The above, from Philly, was tweeted by Eric Liguori.

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