07.27.2016Personal Tech

The latest wearables buzz will shock you to help break bad habits

Bite your nails? Eat too many sweets? Now, you can try to zap yourself out of bad behavior.
The latest wearables buzz will shock you to help break bad habits

Wearable tech has exploded in the past few years to the point where it seems like everyone has at least one tracker on their wrists. Most of these devices are in some way aimed at improving our quality of life by rewarding us for good habits. A new crop of gadgets, however, puts the focus on helping us eliminate bad habits, including one with a shocking twist.

Most wrist wearables focus on gathering data about their owners’ behavior, especially when it comes to fitness. These wristbands track heart rate, steps walked, distance traveled, calories burned, and even how often you get up and move throughout the day. Most use a psychological concept you may remember from high school called positive reinforcement.

With most wrist trackers, when the user hits their goal, whether that’s number of steps in a day or a certain level of heart rate activity, they get a reward. That reward is usually not especially rewarding; most wearables simply display a message or video saying “Goal Achieved!” or something similar. Positive reinforcement is designed to encourage a user to continue to perform good behaviors. But what if you want to break a bad habit? There are now wearables for that, too.

The Pavlok looks a lot like an ordinary fitness tracker: it costs around $200 and is constructed of rubber and plastic, with no display on the face but simply a lighting rod-shaped pattern. Pavlok’s strategy is the opposite of Fitbit’s: negative reinforcement. Instead of associating good behaviors with a reward, the Pavlok wants to associate bad behaviors with a punishment—in this case, a 350-volt electrical shock.

Enthusiasts say that the shock is key and that a simple vibration wouldn’t do the trick. “[Vibrating] alerts are great to bring your awareness to the fact that you’re indulging in a bad habit. That’s half the battle,” says George Burke, who runs a San Francisco-based life-hacking group called Peak Performance. “But for me, I still require this ‘negative punishment’ to break very strong habits.”

Pavlok is designed to help users quit those bad habits. A smartphone app helps you pick which habit you’d like to break—smoking, gambling, nail-biting, eating sweets, failure to exercise, etc. With a built-in accelerometer, the same sensor that tells your Fitbit or smartphone how many steps you’ve walked, it’s capable of figuring out how well you’re doing at meeting your goals. In the case of exercising, for example, you can tell the Pavlok you want to walk a minimum of 8,000 steps per day. And if you don’t hit that number? You’ll get a short shock. You can also link the Pavlok to your bank account, and get zapped if you go over your daily spending limit.

That shock isn’t nearly as severe as an invisible dog collar, let alone something like a Taser, but videos and testimonials show that it’s definitely noticeable and unpleasant. The company’s founder, Maneesh Sethi, describes it in a video as similar to a static electric shock you’d get from wearing socks on carpet and touching a metal doorknob.

Other habits are harder to detect, given the sensors the Pavlok has. It can’t know, for example, whether you’re eating a cupcake, and it would be very difficult to guess whether you’re smoking or biting your nails. In that case, you can push a button on your Pavlok to deliver a brief shock to yourself while doing the activity you want to stop, or you can even give access to a friend, who can shock you from afar. The idea is that, over time, your brain will begin to associate the bad habit with unpleasantness, and your cravings to do it will stop.

The Pavlok isn’t the only gadget taking aim at correcting bad habits. The Lumo Lift, for example, is a small sensor meant to attach via a magnet to a user’s shirt in the chest or collar area. It has a gyroscope sensor built in, which helps it detect bad posture. When it detects slouching, it vibrates—not a shock, like the Pavlok, but a gentle reminder to stand up straight.

For those who still want positive reinforcement to go with their buzzes and zaps, the Moti is a non-wearable that rewards you for those abstract but important goals that a wrist wearable can’t track: it’s a cute little robotic device that sits on your desk. “The product is still in development, but they have an interesting reward-based approach that’s the opposite of Pavlok’s punishment zap,” says Burke. It delivers light shows and sounds when a user achieves little goals throughout the day.

Reward-and/or-punishment based systems like these might be the next step in life improvement: it’s not just about tracking yourself, it’s about improving yourself. And a little shock is just what some people think they need to achieve that goal.