Prepared to Be Shocked: How to Zap a Bad Habit


In case it’s been awhile since you considered Ivan Pavlov’s world of classical conditioning, here’s a brief reminder: In the early 1900s, the Russian psychologist figured out that if a particular dog was conditioned to associate a certain sound with being fed, the canine would salivate simply by hearing the sound.

What if Pavlov’s research could help us become more productive workers?

One wearable tech startup the created a product called Pavlok is confident it can.

At a glance, Pavlok—which was built by Behavioral Technologies—looks like a harmless bracelet that fits comfortably on your wrist. But the device is anything but benign.

By using a series of, at worst, “slightly uncomfortable” zaps, beeps and taps—the company’s website says—Pavlok conditions you to conquer your bad habits, in a handful of days. The device has helped people quit smoking, nail-biting and overspending, according to the company.

The device has numerous settings. Users can set the Pavlok to deliver shocks with intensities ranging anywhere from a paltry 50 volts to an impressive 450 volts of electricity. And the best part? You can shock yourself 200 times with one charge—how fun!

Here’s how the company’s head of marketing described the sensation to a TechCrunch reporter: “It’s nothing that’s painful. Well, it may be painful. It’s not enjoyable. It’s unpleasant. But it’s not, like, severe pain.”


How the Idea Was Born

Maneesh Sethi, co-founder of Pavlok, became an internet sensation a few years back when he paid someone to slap him in the face every time he used Facebook. Sethi claims the experiment quadrupled his productivity. Building on that idea, Sethi wondered whether a device could be built that would zap him every time he checked his Facebook feedback, and lo, the idea for Pavlok was born.

After raising $276,000 through crowdfunding, Pavlok secured additional VC funding in April 2015—though the exact amount was not disclosed.

According to Sethi, the device—which retails for $199—has already been tried out by 10,000 people. While not backed by science, the company is expected to launch a clinical trial later this year.

Is Pavlok a Bad Idea?

Shocking yourself into behavioral change. What are you, a dog?

There are some people who think the device is pretty masochistic by design. After all, you’re inflicting pain on yourself, no matter how the folks over at Pavlok want to describe it.

But everyone has different pain thresholds. So while someone might bitch and moan after getting zapped, other individuals might not mind a brief jolt so much. And then there are those sickos who might even love it.

Does it even matter if the device is “masochistic” anyway? This is America, ain’t it?

Here’s a more valid criticism of the device: Some argue the Pavlok is misnamed. It’s not based on classical conditioning at all—it’s based on operant conditioning, these folks suggest. If the makers don’t understand the school of psychology that powers their device, how the heck are we supposed to believe it actually does what they say it does?

Is Pavlok a Good Idea?

But the device, at least anecdotally, does seem to work. This writer, for example, swears that he was able to stop biting his nails after wearing it.

But despite that, he isn’t sure that the device is all it’s cracked up to be. After all, it’s not like the Pavlok is alive. It’s never going to know when you’re smoking a cigarette. You have to zap yourself. And unless you really want to quit something or change your habits, you might not want to.

Still, as the saying goes, different strokes for different folks. So while some people might find the Pavlok to be a little bit off-putting, to say the least, there are certainly folks (e.g., masochists and those with weak will power) who will very likely benefit from using the device.

Pavlok in the Workplace

Imagine you’re bootstrapping a startup with four buddies. You’ve got a lot to do, and you need everyone firing on all full cylinders while you build your product.

Thing is, it seems as though two of you are pulling most of the weight of the group.

Enter Pavlok, applied in a team setting. You can set specific goals for each team member. If those goals are missed for whatever reason, other members of the team can punish the slacker either by forcing that person to pay a fine or by sending shocks through the app.

That either sounds like the recipe for an insane uptick in productivity—or the easiest way to make everyone hate each other.

What do you think?

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