I have a lot of bad habits, but one of the most outwardly obvious is that I bite my nails. A lot. I bit them so much I once got an infection in my thumb. Gross, right? An ex told me my nail-biting made him anxious – although it's doubtful that was the reason it didn't work out – and people in meetings have asked if I'm okay because I'm frantically chewing at my own hand.
So when I was asked to test Pavlok, the controversial wearable that delivers an electric shock to your wrist ranging from 50 to 500 volts, I saw it as the perfect – albeit extreme – opportunity to stop my nail-biting compulsions for good. But just how well would the wearable work and would I actually stop my bad habit?
The science behind Pavlok
At first glance, Pavlok looks like a bit of a gimmick. Or a LOT of a gimmick. But despite the team's lack of official medical backing, they boast a huge portfolio of cases in which using the wearable to shock people actually worked wonders.
You can browse through the list of bad habits the team claims it can break, but some of the most impressive case studies include stopping teeth grinding, excessive skin picking and hell, even a heroin addiction.
Maneesh Sethi, the creator of Pavlok, writes on the company's blog about the thinking behind the wearable. As the name would suggest, it's based on the classic theory of Pavlovian conditioning. It can be summarised as creating a cognitive association with a specific action over time. Pavlov got dogs to salivate at the ring of a bell by associating that sound with food – and the Pavlok wearable aims to do the same thing, but with your gross habits and an electric shock.
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Because the wearable doesn't know when you're carrying out your bad habit most of the time, there are two types of zaps, regular ones and self-administered ones. They sound the same, but there's two distinct models of behavioural theory at play here. Getting zapped automatically is punishment or operant conditioning – do something to stop something bad happening. Whereas zapping yourself can be both operant conditioning and aversive conditioning – training yourself to stop doing something by zapping yourself. And then zapping yourself when you do it again.
The team took these models of classical conditioning and applied them to the Pavlok, adding in the electric shock because, after reading tonnes of research, they found that was the most effective stimulus.
Now this admittedly sounds clunky, far too reminiscent of that scene from A Clockwork Orange and based on anecdotal evidence and past research rather than actual science. But while Pavlok's brand of habit smashing tech might be more extreme, there are scores of existing devices designed to nag us into being better versions of ourselves with reminders, nudges and shameful stats. Not to mention the good ol' rubber band technique, where you snap the band on your wrist to stop doing something undesirable.
The big difference with Pavlok's style over others – and a claim that puts it in conflict with a lot of previous studies about habits – is it's really convinced of its wearable's abilities. Screw 21 days, Pavlok claims it can get rid of my habit in just five.
Electrocuting experiment begins
When you first put the Pavlok on (at your peril), you need to set the kind of feedback you want to receive. It's not all about electric shocks. Instead you can opt for audio or vibrations. But I went straight with the shocks, because I'm a sucker for pain.
You then need to set the electrical current strength, which increases in arbitrary increments around a dial. There's no mention of volts at this stage, which for the curious people is highly disappointing, but is likely deliberate so you don't throw in the towel at the first hurdle.
I went straight in with 100% and, although I don't have a frame of reference, it felt like a really significant shock. I dialled it back to 50%, as I felt that was enough of a jolt to stop me from doing something, but not enough to make me cry in public.
From there, you're directed straight to Pavlok's introductory audio training programme, which is what really takes the wearable from maybe-stupid-toy to actually useful device. Over a series of five days you're given audio training that allows you to identify your habits, cultivate more awareness, notice what triggers you to do your bad habit, and on the final day, start using aversion techniques to get rid of it once and for all.
This is really effective. A mixture of convincing research-based advice, soothing audio that sends you into a trance-like state and a slow and steady approach that doesn't force you to actually zap until the fifth day makes for a habit-smashing programme I can actually start to believe in.
You're really told to splash around in the shallow end at first, with the first few days of audio being all about becoming more aware of your habits and your behaviours. You can shock yourself (although you're not forced to) if you notice yourself carrying out your bad habit. And, for the first few days, I did. I'd say I spend a huge proportion of my day nail-biting and I shocked myself six times on both days. I tallied the other times that I went to bite my nails, but didn't because I didn't want to shock myself at near 30 on both days.
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On the third day, I didn't shock myself once because I didn't go to bite my nails. But, I did start to get a near-constant tingling sensation in my hand, which left me wondering whether nice, long nails would really be worth a lifelong, electricity-induced twitch?
The next few days of audio were all about becoming more mindful of triggers and the emotions that bring on my nail biting, which is often being nervous or concentrating really hard or just being bored out of my mind. Maybe I knew that anyway, but taking the time out of each day to give it some thought was really helpful.
The final day was the biggie. You had to use all of the stuff to then begin the aversion training. Thinking about what triggers the habit, doing the habit, then zapping yourself. This is when it all got a little bit too much for me, as I sat there for a solid five minutes biting my nails (which I'd already temporarily stopped doing) and zapping my (now shaking uncontrollably) arm. But that's the whole point of aversion therapy.
You need to become disgusted and psychologically exhausted by your bad habit so you won't do it anymore. So you can force yourself to face up to the reality of how unhelpful your habit really is.
After five days, you can do what you like. Keep at the intense aversion therapy, or just zap yourself when you do something bad. I tried a mixture of both and, a whole week later, I'd stopped biting my nails. I'm free! I can get manicures like normal people! Yay!
Fast-forward another few days after I stopped the nail-biting experiment and I've been nail-biting a little. But the effects are still there. When I go to bite them I often think about the Pavlok. After I've bitten them I feel shame that I shouldn't. Only time will tell whether my habit is gone for good, but it's mostly gone, at least for now. Let's say it's 80% smashed.
Breaking more bad habits
Smashing my nail biting habit had me feeling like an actual superhero, so I decided to see if I could make anymore improvements with the help of the chunky wearable and a lot of electricity.
I decided to delve into the more murky world of trying to stop having negative thoughts. Sure negative thoughts can be way more deep-set than a simple habit, but it was on Pavlok's list, so I decided to give it a whirl.
After five days I found that I was becoming much more mindful of my negative thoughts, what set them off and when they hit. But the Pavlok wasn't effective at nearly stopping these thoughts as it was at nail biting. And maybe that's because it's not physical – it's all inside the mind and likely much more deeply ingrained.
But they're both examples of self-administered zaps. So next I downloaded Pavlok's Chrome extension to see how I'd fare being zapped every time I checked Facebook. This was fascinating, because it was a totally different experience. There wasn't the shameful, aversion-creating emotion of nail-biting, just the random shocks. I found I went on Facebook about a billion times, being shocked each time (I may have dialled it down to 20 percent at this point).
I eventually cut it out after convincing myself I'd lose my arm to this shit, but felt the punishment model wasn't half as beneficial as the aversion model.
Can you really shock yourself into being a better person?
A lot of the hype around Pavlok has branded it as some kind of magic wearable that'll make you instantly better. But when you delve into the nuts and bolts of our habitual behaviour, it makes sense why this works.
Aside from Pavlov's findings, we know that most habits tend to work in a basic loop. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg explains that more often than not our habits become our habits in a simple process of cue —> routine —> reward. My cue is I'm anxious —> my routine is I bite my nails —> my reward is that I get some kind of calming release from the chewing. But add Pavlok into the mix and the reward goes out of the window. I know if the cue sets off the routine, I'll get zapped. There's no reward. In fact, there's a negative waiting for me at the end.
What's fascinating here is, I found that when I wasn't biting my nails, I was doing other things. I started chewing a pen and plaiting my hair in two rather important meetings. This could be a testament to my unrelenting feelings of anxiety, or that if you're someone who does things habitually you'll find a way to get that reward even if the one you most easily go to is eradicated.
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And that's just the operant conditioning model at work. Aversive conditioning has been proven to stop people from reaching for all kinds of coping mechanisms because its either serving up an unpleasant effect – in this case electrocuting you – or showing you the reality of your habit, and how anti-social my habit actually is.
Or, this could all be a case of teaching me to be more mindful. The audio programme is rooted in tried-and-tested awareness techniques. So it might not be a case of rewiring some deep part of my brain, but just teaching me that a more mindful approach to my day is likely to stop me from doing the things I don't want to do.
So regardless of whether Pavlok is just a silly gimmick, there's no doubt that my brain is shouting "electrocution" when I go to bite my nails now. It's concerning what kind of long-term effect this may have – ask my therapist in 10 years if I'm having nightmares about lightning – but there's no doubt that such a memorable aversion and punishment technique, combined with a solid mindfulness training audio programme, has been effective in helping me at least cut down on my nail biting habit for good.