Can an Electronic Shock Bracelet Kill Your Bad Habits?

I turned to aversive conditioning to get my time back. It worked.

Illustration: Qieer Wang

InIn the famously horrifying Milgram experiment, often cited as evidence of the depth of humans’ tendency to obey authority, people were told to administer steadily increasing electric shocks to a test subject, to the point of death. People administered the shocks as instructed, even after the person being shocked begged them to stop.

In the experiment, the shocks were fake, thank goodness. But the bracelet I’m wearing on my wrist administers shocks that are very real.

My Pavlok 2 is initially set at its lowest electricity level, 50 volts. When I shock myself, which you do by pressing down on the top of the device, it’s imperceptible.

I bump the shock setting up to 50%, or around 200 volts. This feels like an insect sting. A brief incision of electricity. Uncomfortable, but tolerable.

I try 70%. This shock goes all the way through my body and bounces me a little bit off my seat. It is less tolerable and more something I don’t ever want to do again.

However, for the sake of research, I have to try 100%. I feel like I’m doing both sides of the Milgram experiment at once, but I grit my teeth and go for it: 450 volts.

My response, verbatim, once I recover: Fucking. No.

TThe Pavlok 2 is a wearable device that allows you to give yourself a “mild electrical stimulus” every time you engage in a bad habit. In my case, that habit was mindless scrolling on social media.

I spend between 90 minutes and three hours every day on Twitter and other social networking sites, according to the tracking service RescueTime. By some estimates, this puts me right in line with the national average, but — like Pavlok founder Maneesh Sethi — I want to put my mind to better use.

Sethi was inspired to create the aversive conditioning device after discovering he was spending 29 hours a week on social media and — well, in his words, “I posted an ad on Craigslist looking for someone willing to slap me in the face any time I got off task… for $8 an hour.”

After Sethi successfully hired a face-slapper and “quadrupled his productivity,” he came up with the idea of creating a device that could help other people break their own habits without having to write weird Craigslist ads.

I’ve tried various methods of cutting back: telling myself that I’ll only use social media to share, not engage; setting up a “shortlist” of the people whose feeds I like best and ignoring everyone else; writing wishful blog posts about how I’m going to spend less time on Twitter.

I’ve never stuck to it. So I decided to try shocking myself out of my social media habit instead.

PPavlok claims its wearables can help you abandon your bad habits in under a month, though many users break their habits in just five days. I decided to try it for a week.

I dutifully set up the kludgy Pavlok Chrome extension that’s designed to administer a shock every time I spend more than 30 minutes per day on social media, and when that extension proves to be too glitchy I swap it for the Pavlok IFTTT integration that does the same thing.

But it turns out I never need it. On the first day, it’s because I don’t want to get shocked. On the second day, it’s because I’ve rediscovered how nice it is to work without simultaneously following a bunch of conversations on Twitter.

Cal Newport writes in his book, Digital Minimalism, about the importance of setting aside time to experience sustained thought without “input from other minds.” Giving myself more time to think and focus pays off; according to RescueTime, I’ve been consistently beating my productivity averages since I began the experiment.

The next two days are weekend days, and I don’t even check social media then. I am very excited to add up to three hours back in Saturday leisure time.

I never hit my 30-minute limit, but I still shock myself a few times (at 50%, never 100%) when I feel the urge to check social media, as instructed in the the Pavlok 2 How-To Guide.

I probably shocked myself fewer than 10 times that weekend, but by Sunday evening my left arm develops a lingering soreness. That’s where I tell the Milgram-esque experimenter in my head that I’m done; I’ll let the Pavlok shock me if I go beyond 30 minutes of social media time, but that’s it.

On Monday, I try to use up all 30 minutes of my social media time just because I’ve told myself I can, but the thrill is gone.

SSo, okay. I’ve successfully broken my social media habit in five days, just like the Pavlok marketing copy suggested I would. I am now spending roughly 15 minutes on social media per day, mostly to share my writing and promote other people’s work.

But what’s to prevent my social media habit from, like, slipping back in — especially since I am no longer wearing my Pavlok? Did I really break my habit, or did I do the thing where you tell yourself you’re going to stop doing a certain behavior, and you stop doing it for a week or so and feel great, and a month later you’re back to where you started?

I reached out to Louis Weisz, one of the users featured in Pavlok’s Success Stories. Weisz, who runs the YouTube channel Weisz Cracks, reviewed the original Pavlok in 2016 and tested the Pavlok 2 in 2017. He credited the devices with helping him break his nail-biting habit and successfully waking up on time, so I asked him if he’d kept up the changes even after he stopped wearing them.

The waking up habit has stuck, he says. The nail-biting habit has been significantly reduced, but not completely eliminated. “I’ve been off the device for about three months,” Weisz told me. “I still bite occasionally — usually when I’m hungry, strangely — but not anywhere near the level that I did before using it.”

Weisz made a particularly insightful statement during his Pavlok 2 review: “Rather than stopping you on its own, Pavlok teaches you to stop yourself, using punishment as a method to increase your self-awareness… The zap serves as a reminder that your bad habits are hurting you. It guides you into changing them yourself.”

James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones, writes that one of the best ways to get rid of a bad habit is to make it “painful or unsatisfying.” Every time you indulge in a bad habit, for example, you have to wear the sports regalia of your favorite team’s biggest rival.

Of course, not everyone thinks that punishment is the best way to change habits. Stanford professor and psychologist Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, writes that “it’s forgiveness, not guilt, that increases accountability.”

She cites a study which showed that young women on self-reported diets who were encouraged to forgive themselves after eating a doughnut ate half as much candy as did the women who were encouraged to feel guilty about the doughnut — and sure, all of that sounds totally food-shamey, but maybe there’s a point here.

That is, instead of running a 450-volt shock through our bodies, we should say: “Hey, you’re doing that thing you don’t want to do! It’s cool, but… now that you’re aware of it, how about you do something else?”

NNear the end of the experiment, I jotted down a note to myself: “You have to really want to.” I mean, you can use all of the tricks in the world, from shock bracelets to temptation bundling to self-forgiveness, but there has to be some kind of intrinsic motivation as well.

As Weisz told me in an email: “Pavlok isn’t going to MAKE you do anything. If you WANT to bite your nails, you can still do it. If you WANT to smoke, you can still smoke. You have to believe that your habit is bad enough to be worth changing, and then use Pavlok to help you change it.”

I’m no longer wearing the Pavlok, and instead I’m relying on positive motivation, happily ticking off every day that I spend fewer than 15 minutes on social media sites using a “don’t break the chain” habit tracker.

If nothing else, my experience with the Pavlok showed me that reducing the brain space I’m handing over to social media is something I truly want to do. But there’s a lot more that goes into changing a habit than sheer will, no matter how much we pretend otherwise.

Freelance writer at Vox, Bankrate, Haven Life, & more. Author of The Biographies of Ordinary People.

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