Are We All Just Pavlovian Dogs?

Dings Make Us Drool

His men tied him to the mast of his own ship. 

Odysseus was screaming at his crew mates as his boat sailed by the island of the Sirens. This was all in vain, however, since they all had beeswax in their ears. They couldn’t hear a thing.

 

A typical encounter with the Sirens 

Crew members on a boat sailed by the treacherous island inhabited by vicious monsters called Sirens. Nobody who sailed towards the island ever lived. Yet when these crew members heard the song of the Sirens that lived on this island of death, they were so enchanted by it that they saw these monsters as women so beautiful that they just had to row towards them.

To the ear plugged crewmates on Odysseus’s boat, however, the Sirens looked like true monsters with wings and vicious, crooked claws. To Odysseus, who could hear, they beckoned with a beauty he could not resist. 

Since our ability as humans to control our impulses is limited, Odysseus exercised incredible judgment to achieve his goal of being the first man to hear the Sirens and survive. He was astute enough to address the two ways he could possibly give commands. By strapping his hands and deafening his crewmates, he ensured that the boat would not steer off course no matter how badly he wanted to engage with the Sirens.

Odysseus was the main character in an epic poem by Homer. You and I live lives that likely aren’t as epic. But is there really a difference between us and Odysseus?

 

Drooling Over Dings

When he fed his dogs, Ivan Pavlov sounded a metronome. After a few meals, his dogs began to salivate in response to the metronome, even in the absence of food. They had already been unconsciously conditioned to expect food merely at the sound of the metronome.

So what do these dogs, Odysseus, you, and I have in common? We can’t hold ourselves back from what we think we want. Odysseus was uncontrollably drawn to the sound of the Sirens, the dogs uncontrollably salivated to the sound of the metronome, and you and I uncontrollably check our phones when we hear them go “ding!”

The notifications on our phones are so addictive. They could mean so many things. Perhaps someone wants to ask us something, or someone is responding to something we tweeted. No matter what it is, those “dings” almost always represent someone giving us attention or something needing our attention, and we’re suckers for it.

 

The Danger Behind Notifications

Many experts believe that notifications are the biggest productivity and safety vortexes people face today. Just a simple ding can distract us for hours. In fact, had I ignored the 21 notifications I received while writing this, I would have finished this post about an hour earlier.

The ramifications of notifications extend beyond just wasting time, though. The National Safety Council estimates that checking text messages cause about 1.6 million crashes each year, with 1 in every 4 crashes now being caused by texting while driving.

Did the inventors of SMS and social media services foresee all these consequences? Likely not. And honestly, while we love these services, the question we must ask ourselves is, “how do we separate the pleasure these services bring us from their possible overuse and unavoidable negative consequences?”

 

The Ting About Dings

Notifications are not inherently bad; they alert us. But they’re just too powerful. We allow our devices to grab our attention so easily; all they have to do is go “ding” and we’re there.

I want you to think about where you usually keep your phone. Where it is at this very moment is a pretty good indicator of how much control it has over your time and attention. If you’re at work and you’re reading this on your phone, think about how you got here 😀

 

Let The Dogs Out

We live in a world of dings. We also live in a world where time and attention are limited. We as a species seem incredibly advanced, yet we’re still limited by the fact that we can only give our attention to one thing at a time. Many of us kid ourselves that we can focus on multiple tasks and that we are multi-taskers.

Unfortunately, the only thing multi-tasking gives us is the opportunity to screw up more than one thing at the same time

Considering what we now know about the productivity vortex that our notifications create, here are some ways we can take back control and stop letting our dings take us away from what we want and need to do:

 

  • Leave the phone out of reach. It’s impossible to finish anything when we check our phone every time it buzzes. Throw it in a drawer or the back seat, and you’ll find that you’ll naturally be able to focus on the task at hand without being distracted by a buzz every minute or two.
  • Turn on Do Not Disturb. This effectively accomplishes the same goal as leaving it out of reach.
  • Schedule regular times to check notifications. FOMO is a powerful force, it’s hard to be away from the dings for too long. I get it. This will help.
  • Can you overcome your Pavlovian dog? See just how long you can stay off your phone, or see how many things you can accomplish before checking your phone again. Your challenge: put yourself in your dog’s paws for the evening and see if you can stay off the technology like your dog, Nacho.
  • Treat yourself. You’ve stayed off that thing all evening, treat yo self! 

 

Up Next: Can You Trust Your Eyes?