Like many who grew up in the Jackass era, I've always been fascinated by self-inflicted electrocution. As a kid, I tongued D-volt batteries and loved playing with those shock-your-friend prank toys. Once, in college, I made my friends play a musical chairs-style drinking game where the losers got zapped by this thing. So, when I stumbled upon an article from our friends over at VICE UK about a device that could shock away my bad habits, I was immediately intrigued.
The company behind this product, Pavlok, sells a wristband not unlike a Fitbit. But instead of counting your steps and calories, the Pavlok device (named after psychologist Ivan Pavlov, the father of classical conditioning) straps a high-tech battery to your wrist that zaps you during moments of bad behavior. According to the company, the wristband is designed to modify the wearer's behavior to the point where they associate the bad habit with a slightly painful zap of electricity, even when no longer wearing the band.
It also happens to be a product whose inventor caused Mr. Wonderful from Shark Tank to shout, "YOU'RE AN ASSHOLE, GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE" at him.
Sims McGrath, Pavlok's marketing and PR manager, told me that people have used the device to cure all kinds of bad habits, and that "using Pavlok to cut down on porn addiction is much more common than anyone expects." Fortunately (or unfortunately), this wasn't an issue for me. In fact, in most aspects of my life, I'm doing pretty well: I don't smoke, I'm a healthy eater, and I exercise with some regularity. The one thing that could stand to improve is my alcohol consumption, which runs about ten drinks per week, sometimes more—nearly enough to be considered an "excessive drinker."
It's not that I'm an alcoholic, but I knew my body (and my wallet) could benefit from cutting back. The makers of Pavlok claimed I could see results in as few as five days, so I figured by the end of a month, I'd be an entirely different person—or at least a slightly more sober one.
I don't know how I'd imagined the wristband would work, but I was nonetheless disappointed to learn that I'd have to push a button every time I drank in order to shock (and therefore condition) myself. This made the device's $200 price tag seem a little outrageous—couldn't I just snap myself with a rubber band for free?
After charging the device, I strapped it on and tested it out. The instructions inside the box told me to continue with my bad habit as usual, but to push a button to zap myself whenever I did the thing I wanted to stop. Pretty quickly, the instructions said, I would associate my bad habit with the pain of the shock and would subconsciously stop doing it.
The initial shock wasn't the Taser jolt I'd imagined, even when I ratcheted up the voltage. It was weird, sure, but it didn't exactly hurt.
"The biggest misconception seems to be that the zap is painful," McGrath told me. "It's not, but it is definitely uncomfortable. People are so intimidated by the zap, but once they have a chance to try it—and adjust it to a level they are comfortable with—almost everyone says they could see themselves using it to change a behavior."
I spent the next few days drinking the usual amount and pressing the big button on my wrist every time I took a swig. It was surprisingly easy to explain to my friends why I kept electrocuting myself after each sip, because at this point, they're all used to me doing weird things to my body for the sake of "experimental journalism."
After a few days, something strange began to happen. I wasn't dreading the idea of the impending zap—on the contrary, I was looking forward to it. The feeling could best be described as the kick from a bump of coke crossed with the innocence of the buzz you'd get from spinning yourself in circles as a kid.
I'm not alone in my enjoyment of electronic stimulation. The BDSM community has been playing around with erotic electrostimulation (or e-stim) since Edison invented electricity. It's now a relatively safe practice that uses Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation, or TENS units, designed for therapeutic purposes; the kink has come a long way since the dangerous Relax-A-Cizor of the nuclear age.
But my enjoyment of these shocks wasn't sexual—I was certain of that. I just liked how it felt. In a 2014 study, when researchers at the University of Virginia gave participants the option to sit quietly by themselves or self-administer an electric shock, two-thirds of the men opted for the shock. One guy even pressed the buzzer 190 times in 15 minutes. Maybe I'm just like that guy.
After shocking myself for a few days, I'd successfully curbed my drinking. In fact, I wasn't really missing alcohol at all. What I was missing was having a drink as an excuse to shock myself with the bracelet. So instead of pushing the button every time I had a sip, I decided to shock myself every time I saw or heard a mention of alcohol. I don't know much about psychology, but I figured I'd still be carving out neural pathways associating the shocks with booze.
By this point, I had adjusted the app settings so that with each push of the button, I was hitting myself at "100 percent shock," or 340 volts, in five bursts. (A Taser, by comparison, is 50,000 volts.) Then, I decided to submit myself to the ultimate field test: a party.
That Friday, I went to a house party where the drinks were flowing. Every so often, I'd press the button on my wrist and deliver an electric jolt as my friends were responsibly enjoying their alcoholic beverages.
Most people reacted with an immediate recoil when I offered to let them try the Pavlok, but there were a few kindred spirits who seemed to enjoy the experience as much as I did. I tested the device on ten people. One girl even asked if I could zap her neck with it (I did) before asking if I'd tried it on my dick (I had).
And then, in the middle of the party, only three weeks into the experiment, my Pavlok stopped working.
I tried charging it at home, doing a factory reset, jumping through all the troubleshooting hoops—but nothing worked. The company assumed something had become detached inside the module and promised to mail me a new one, but there was an order backlog and the replacement didn't arrive for another two weeks.
When it finally did, using it seemed unnecessary. I was drinking less than when I had started the treatment and going cold turkey on the electricity had diminished my zap cravings. I put the wristband on one last time and pressed the button at full power. The shock felt different—less intense, maybe—as if they'd sent me back the docile, lobotomized version of the device.
I don't think my new interest in electricity would've ever reached the point where I'd be camping out next to the third rail, but it was still nice to learn that my supply had essentially run dry. And using Pavlok did curb my drinking, so I guess the experiment was a success. But if you're thinking about splurging on this latest wearable to curtail your own sins, consider for a moment that, if you're anything like me, you might just be replacing one bad habit with another.
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