Pavlovian Response to Wearables
Human behavior is a fluid and ever-evolving concept that is not easily measured. That behavior can change gradually over time or dramatically, as new powerful stimuli enter the environment of large populations. Just as the invention of the car changed mass transportation behaviors, the invention of portable technology continues to transform human behavior in the 21st century. In fact, the presence of technology in everyday life has become so ingrained that many human responses appear instinctual.
Much like Pavlov’s dogs, some arbitrary technological signals have become deep-rooted symbols of rewards to come- as a designated ringtone from a close friend or the beeping of the oven when food is ready to eat. In some cases, these signals have become so rewarding that our human responses imitate addiction.
In order for a behavior to become addictive, the rate of reward must not be consistent in that it can come at any time and in any amount. A gambler sitting at the penny slots knows that each pull will not result in profit but will sit for the thrill of the random ding, ding, ding that accompanies a winning combination. In the same way, a notification on your phone can serve as a social reward that is only reinforced intermittently throughout the 150 times per day we check our phones for notifications.
The gratification of portable technology has become so valuable, that our brains can create the sensation of receiving a notification when they do not exist. Recent research coined the term “phantom vibration syndrome” to describe the phenomenon. Dr. Michelle Drouin, a developmental psychologist, published a study on the rate of phantom vibration syndrome and found that 89% of participants encountered at least one occurrence during the study’s duration. Interestingly, “few young adults were bothered by these phantom vibrations or made attempts to stop them”, which suggests that our brains are acclimated to the perpetual presence of technology in our thoughts.
For some, the dependency on portable technology has become so strong that the absence of them triggers anxiety. Dr. Larry Rosen studied the effects of mobile device removal on students aged 19-57 and found that anxiety increased after only 10 minutes of being deprived of their personal mobile devices. After the initial phase of anxiety concluded, “those who use the device more frequently become significantly more anxious as time passes than those who use it less frequently”.
Imagine how human dependency on technology will intensify now that devices are increasingly being worn, implanted, and even ingested.
The human brain has an advantage that Pavlov’s dogs did not. We are aware of the effects that technology can possess over our reflexes and chemistry. The knowledge of this dependency is in and of itself a new stimuli entering into the spectrum of human behavior that has the potential to correct the imbalance. Or, to put it more obviously, “the first step in overcoming a problem is admitting that you have one”.