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

Does wearable tech work better when it builds us up or breaks us down?
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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.

Essential reading: How your mindset can get you fitter

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 that's more likely to bring about the results we're after, or are both approaches fundamentally limited?

Crime and punishment

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

So let's take things back to basics, and analyse just what we mean by reinforcement. To reinforce means to strengthen and in the world of behavioural psychology it's used to refer to an action that increases the probability that a person will do something again.

There are two different kinds: positive and negative.

Positive reinforcement is when someone is presented with a motivating stimulus for exhibiting good behaviour. So this is praise for doing good work, being paid money after cleaning up or receiving a badge for going on a run.

Negative reinforcement is when someone is presented with an adverse stimulus, which is removed when the desired behaviour has been exhibited. So you might tidy up to stop your mum from nagging or go for a run so you don't lose a bet.

It's hard to talk about positive and negative reinforcement without also exploring punishment – which is often very similar to negative reinforcement.

The difference is that punishment is often associated with bad behaviour. So do something bad and there'll be a negative consequence, or do something bad and something good will be taken away.

Finally, an aversion is something that can be brought about by punishment (or the threat of punishment) and negative reinforcement, which arouses strong feelings of dislike when presented with the original undesired behaviour.

They may all have similarities, but they also have very different impacts on behaviour, motivation and how long-lasting any change really is.

The power of the dark side

There are many anecdotal and research-based examples of both negative reinforcement and punishment bringing about action and change in some people.

But most of the time, this is because people just want to avoid potential pain, embarrassment or failure.

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Behavioural psychologist BF Skinner, who wrote a lot about conditioning, famously said, "a person who has been punished is not simply less inclined to behave a given way; at best he learns how to avoid future punishment."

This means that the change happening in cases where solely negative reinforcement and punishment are used is rarely driven by a genuine desire to take action.

In many ways, fear is actually a really useful evolutionary response that stops you doing something again. But it can also be debilitating for some people, like a deer in headlights. It can also lead to resentment and low self-esteem.

Marketers capitalise on this basic psychological model, cultivating a fear that we're not good enough, pretty enough or smart enough without a certain product. And many of us still fall for these flashy ad campaigns every day.

You may have experienced something similar if you've wanted to lose weight in the run up to a holiday. You're motivated by the fear of not looking good enough, so you put a lot of time in at the gym and eat only salad for two weeks. Or when you've got a deadline and you stay up until 4am to meet it out of fear of failing your course or getting fired.

What these two examples prove is that negative reinforcement and fear can motivate people to change. But more often than not, it comes at a price.

Chartered business and sport psychologist Steven Sylvester explained:

"If punishment and negative reinforcement models are not managed alongside positive reinforcement then it can lead to greater levels of anxiety, stress and fear, and as a result can demotivate someone entirely," he said.

For example, a work culture of fear might increase productivity at first, but over time it can turn to anger and resentment, high staff turnover and in turn, far lower output. Again, if your only motivation to workout is to look good, then once the holiday has been and gone you'll probably fall back into your old ways afterwards.

Extrinsic motivation

There are some who would argue that neither positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement are good for us in the long run, and are actually two sides of the same coin.

This is because they're attaching your growth and change to an external stimulus – whether that's avoiding something bad or getting something good.

This is often referred to as an extrinsic motivation: it's a motivation driven by something outside of yourself. Like impressing others, getting a good grade or making people proud.

And in many cases, once the positive or negative reinforcement is no longer there, the behaviour ends too.

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

Instead many psychologists would argue that real, long-term and lasting motivation needs to be more aligned with your core values and self-determined by you, rather than forced or pressured by an external force. Something aligned to an intrinsic motivation that's driven by interest and enjoyment. Not to prove yourself to others, please others or attain something.

Behavioural psychologists Ryan and Deci conducted a study to find out why some people lose weight once they've committed to it and others don't. They found that those with a self-determined motivation for losing weight, like wanting to improve their overall health and feel good, were the ones who were overall more likely to stay in the weight loss programme, lose the most weight, and, most importantly, keep the weight off over time. Those who took part for external reasons, like keeping a partner happy or looking good, didn't achieve the same levels of weight loss, stick around as long or keep the weight off.

But it's not just about results, but how you feel and how much enjoyment you get too.

Amazon PA: Pavlok

In Ryan and Deci's paper about Self-Determination Theory, they found that all of the research points to people's intrinsic motivations fuelled by their own desires giving them "more interest, excitement and confidence, which in them is manifest as enhanced performance, persistence and creativity. And a heightened vitality, self-esteem and general well-being".

The conclusions we can draw from this are that extrinsic motivations might work if you're pursuing a short-term goal and you're aware of its limitations, like losing a small amount of weight or training for a race. But if long-term change is your aim, then this is might be the wrong approach to take. Especially if you want to feel happy and have fun.

It's important to remember this applies to the positive reinforcement model too.

For example, you might become dependent on your personal trainer being there to tell you you're doing well or your wearable to give you a badge when you finish a run.

Making the dark side work for you

Ryan and Deci say it's different for everyone. Some people respond well to a mixture of extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, others crumble when faced with just a small amount of pressure. So a certain amount of trial and error is needed to figure out what works well for you.

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

That's certainly the attitude adopted by Pavlok. The company has developed two wearables, one by the same name and one called the Shock Clock WakeUp Trainer, both of which deliver an electric shock when you continue your bad habits.

The CEO and Founder of Pavlok, Maneesh Sethi, told us that electric shocks are the company's USP, but you can tailor your experience:

"Our product vibrates, beeps/plays melodies, has flashing lights, and also zaps at variable levels and intervals. We found having a combination of stimuli helps a ton."

He also said that he believes in a mixture of both negative and positive reinforcement, but it depends on when it happens. "Negative gets you started and positive keeps you going. We call this the push-pull motivation model." He believes that negative state changes can be useful in jolting us out of old behaviour – but it's the positive that has the longest lasting effect.

In the same vein, whether reinforcement works also depends on your subjective goals. Sometimes a short-term goal fuelled by negative reinforcement and fear can work.

Steven Sylvester agreed: "In some cases punishment is necessary as it allows people to recognise responsibility of a situation. Presenting the consequence of action or inaction is the only way some people will truly recognise the need to focus and stay motivated.

"We are so complex in our behaviour that administering one approach to everyone simply won't suffice as we will all react differently," he added.

So you can use whichever methods you want and whichever tools you want. But armed with the awareness that long-lasting change rarely happens when you're forced into doing something, you can still have a huge impact on making real, permanent steps towards a better you. Just make sure you allow yourself some positive reinforcements too.

Main picture credit: Pavlok

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Becca Caddy


Becca has been writing about technology for nearly ten years. In that time she’s covered topics from robotics and virtual reality to simulated universe theory and brain-computer interfaces for a wide range of titles, including TechRadar, New Scientist, Wired UK, OneZero by Medium, Stuff, T3, Metro and many more.

She’s passionate about helping people wade through tech jargon to find useful products they’ll actually use – with a focus on health and wellbeing.

Becca is also interested in how scientific developments and technological advances will impact us all in the near future. Many of her features ask big questions about what’s in store for wearable technology, especially the potential of virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

She spends a lot of time interviewing researchers and academics to explore the ethical implications of a world increasingly filled with tech. She’s a big fan of science-fiction, has just traded in her boxing gloves for weight-lifting gloves and spends way too much time in virtual reality – current favourites include painting in TiltBrush and whizzing through space in No Man’s Sky.

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