Positive vs negative wearables: Embrace the dark side at your peril

WAREABLE, MAY 13, 2016

Want to break a habit so badly you’d use a wearable to give yourself an electric shock? For a lot of people, the difficulty of giving up negative habits such as smoking or procrastination is leading them to nag tech wearables to make a difference.

And that’s why tech startup Pavlok has been making headlines, with the wristband that’s designed to deliver a painful dose of electricity whenever you don’t play by its habit-smashing rulebook.

As the name would suggest, it’s based on the classic theory of Pavlovian conditioning, namely, creating a cognitive association with a specific action over time. Pavlov got dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell by associating the sound with food – and Pavlok aims to do the same to your smoking habit.

But Pavlok is not alone. While its brand of habit changing nag tech might be more extreme – and more founded in human cognitive psychology – there are scores of existing devices designed to nag us into being better versions of ourselves with reminders, nudges and shameful stats.

But Pavlok’s use of pain association has prompted discussions about what motivates us to make real, long-lasting change. And whether negative reinforcement, like electric shocks or punishment, is more or less effective than positive reinforcement, like praise, badges and rewards.

It’s a question that’s eluded people in all fields for a long time, from behavioural psychology to education to advertising.

Ask most people and they’d say that positive reinforcement is better, but that doesn’t stop others using negative reinforcement, and even punishment models built on fear, to get people to take action.

So when it comes to a desire to bring about behavioural change for ourselves and understanding the steps we can take, is it the dark side of negative reinforcement that’s more effective, the light side of positive reinforcement thats more likely to bring about the results we’re after, or are both approaches fundamentally limited?

Click here to read the full feature on Wareable.

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