Pavlov’s Dogs, Facebook, and the User Experience

Facebook LogoOne of the most famous psychology experiments was done by Russian psychologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov. Commonly known as “Pavlog’s Dogs,” this experiment proved that animals (including humans) can be conditioned to respond physically and emotionally to social cues. Pavlov’s study helps explain why we get so easily addicted to Facebook. And texting.

In his experiment, Pavlov would ring a bell right before he fed a group of dogs. The dogs quickly learned that the bell, an audio signal not related at all to food, meant food was on its way. Unconsciously, instinctively, the dogs would begin to salivate every time they heard the bell, even if there wasn’t any food around yet. The principle has later been named “Classical Conditioning” because it suggests we are “conditioned” to respond physically to certain cues.

Of course, over 100 years later, Pavlov’s experiment is at the root of many successful advertising campaigns. Organizations condition us to feel or react a certain way to the products we see, the sounds we hear, and even odors we smell. There’s a reason why you might feel hungry when you hear McDonald’s jingle, for example.

More recent research has also shown that human beings have a natural, instinctual drive for obtaining information. When we get a little piece of information, we get a quick shot of dopamine that actually physiologically pushes us to want to know more. It’s like a little information drug. That’s why we often feel so compelled to read Facebook: we want just a little more information. And we learn that, if we post something on Facebook, we might get people to respond. To give us more information. We are physiologically drawn to the bits of information, much the same way people who are addicted to gambling, pornography, or nicotine are drawn to their habit. We actually have to make a conscious decision to pull away; otherwise, we’ll be sucked right in.

So what does this have to do with Pavlov’s dogs? Online marketers (and cell phone developers, among others) have realized that if they give users little teasers, the users will feel compelled to look for more. We are, in essence, being physiologically conditioned by the little noise Facebook makes when we get a new like, or by the little red number that tells us we have a new message, or by the tone on our phone that tells us we got a new text. It is almost more difficult for us NOT to look when we hear or see those little cues. Why? Because we’ve been conditioned, just like Pavlov’s dogs, and because because that conditioning makes us “salivate,” so to speak, for more information. We have a real, internal and physiological reaction that makes us seek more. And, in many cases, we even become addicted to the dopamine surges that these bursts of information cause within us.

This, of course, means two things: first of all, we ought to be aware of how we are being conditioned. Awareness can help us be in more control (which is important when we are driving, for example; if you get a text while driving, do you have the willpower to not look at it until you’ve stopped driving?). Secondly, though, as communicators, we can use this technique to improve user experience. People like the shot of dopamine and they want to know just a little bit more. Twitter, with its 140-character rule, mastered this idea. There’s just enough information there to make our dopamine rise. In order to keep that little high going, we respond and seek for more until the dopamine wears down.

If you want people to read your stuff, or buy your stuff, learn how to condition them… Like it or not, it works.