The ‘Pavlov Poke’ Shocks People Who Spend Too Much Time on Facebook

It's meant to condition social media "addicts" to step away from the screen and enjoy the real world.

Photo via @robertrmorris

Photo via @robertrmorris

Frustrated by the amount of time they were spending online, Robert R. Morris, a PhD candidate at the MIT Media Lab, studying behavioral intervention technologies, and Daniel McDuff, also a PhD candidate at the lab, decided to start a larger conversation about the role of social media sites, and what they came up with was a shocking conclusion.

While intended to be a “light-hearted” approach and borderline joke—although the device is real, and actually works—Morris and McDuff created the “Pavlov Poke,” a machine that is fastened to a user’s computer that sends a shock into their system every time they exceed a certain amount of time spent on social media networks like Facebook.

The project, based on the Pavlovian approach to mental conditioning, was meant to spark a discussion about how communication technologies are designed. “We were thinking of ways of raising the question and provoking a discussion about how these sites might be designed to cause more people to spend more time on them. The sites are deigned around engagement metrics, rather than a person’s well being and metrics of succession rather than enjoyment and benefit of the user,” said McDuff of the “counseling conditioning” techniques. “[This device] does work in a physical sense, it’s a very mild shock, enough to make you react.”

He said the shock is unpleasant, but not dangerous.

This guide from their website breaks down the basics of how a user gets zapped for overindulging:


Morris said the basic principles underlying the device are not new, and they are drawn from the fields of classical conditioning and behaviorism. “There are decades worth of research to show that pairing a previously rewarding stimulus with something aversive can help rewire your body’s conditioned response,” said Morris of the device’s ability to detect an “overindulgence” on Facebook, sending an electric zap into a user’s wrist when they are logged on too long. “The real question is whether people would use this device regularly or whether they would simply disconnect it. That said, I think we’ve hit upon a genuine problem and I think there is definitely a need for interesting technological solutions.”

As the inventors point out, recent research from the University of Chicago showed that texting and checking Facebook and Twitter can be as addictive as cigarettes and alcohol, identifying a problem that doesn’t seem to be slowing down as more and more social sites are conceived regularly in the form of apps.

While they did limited testing to avert their behaviors, the times they did use the Pavlov Poke‑before admittedly unplugging it because of how uncomfortable it became—Morris said he did notice some results. “I would be on Facebook, gorging on pet photos, stuck in some weird hypnotic trance, and it would be minutes or even hours before I realized I had no desire to be there in the first place,” he said in a blog post. “After a few shock exposures, these automatic behaviors seemed completely rewired. I no longer visited the site unless I wanted to…I still visited the site, but I wasn’t dragged there by some mysterious Ouija-esque compulsion.”

A few months after building the device, and with some inspiration from a man who once paid someone to slap him every time he looked at Facebook, Morris and McDuff extended their behavioral research and created a system that automatically hires paid crowdworkers to call users on the phone and yell at them anytime they exceed a pre-set time limit online.  “If you exceed your Facebook quota, our code automatically posts a job on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. The job is simple – workers call your number and then yell at you, reading from a pre-written script designed to be maximally humiliating,” said Morris.

That, too, was a tongue-in-cheek approach to their overall research, but they did enlist people‑and pay them $1.70 for each call—when compiling their data, said McDuff. “I don’t see it as a viable option to fix the problem, there are other ways to make them not use the site, like blocking them form the account,” he said. “But it did provoke the larger discussion [as intended].”

The duo’s approach is quite the opposite of some of their academic peers, who in 2012 invented a jacket that squeezes a person’s body with a hug-like sensation every time they get a “Like” on Facebook, sending them to check their phones immediately to see who may have approved of their social media status.

That project was meant to fill the gap between human interaction, and digital mediums, “bringing us closer despite physical distance,” according to researchers.

But as time progresses, Morris and McDuff think that will become more difficult to achieve, even if your jacket hugs you. “Unfortunately, as new technologies become more mobile, they become harder and harder to resist. Indeed, the more ubiquitous and accessible the technology, the more addictive it can become,” said Morris.