Being a Pavlov Dog in Holiday Season Shopping Spree | The Thinking Blog ~ Knowledge Grows When Shared
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06 December 2007

Being a Pavlov Dog in Holiday Season Shopping Spree

You probably heard about Pavlov's dog. In this experiment, Ivan Pavlov trained several dogs to salivate automatically when a specific bell rang. How did this happen? Well, because the sound had, through repetition, become associated with "dinner time" in dog's mind. Have you ever considered the implications of these experiments for humans? And, have you ever wondered if there's a relationship between "Pavlov's dog" and retailers' advertising for holiday season shopping?

Let's try to connect some dots:

What was going on in Pavlov's dog's brain at a physical level? There is a neuroscience saying that "Cells that fire together wire together." A dog brain, like a human brain, has billions of neurons, which fire (become active) in specific patterns whenever we do anything. As two neurons fire at the same time the "bridge" between them (called a synapse) becomes more and more fortified. At some point the connection or bridge becomes hard-wired. What happened in that dog's brain was that the neurons that fired when the dog saw food (to get the digestive system ready, hence the salivation) became hard-wired to or triggered the neurons that fire when dogs hears the sound of a bell.

How do we react to a movie trailer where we see our favorite actor, or a TV ad for our favorite beer? Salivating, perhaps - even if we are not aware of it.

Why is the name "lie detector" a stretch? Well, if you become anxious for any reason, the device will say that you are lying. Lie detectors do little more than measure some variables (such as skin conductivity, or how sweaty one's fingers become) to detect the emotion of anxiety that arises when one is lying. Think again about Pavlov's dog. What happens if you simply feel anxious for being accused of a crime that can take you to jail, and with police in sight (with their "sound-making bells" of their badges, uniforms, guns)?

On the other hand, how are CIA agents and military personnel trained to evade the power of the lie detector test? Either by deluding themselves into fully believing the stories they want to tell (which then become their "truth" and therefore evoking no anxiety) or by learning how to manage anxiety and break the relationship between the feeling of "lying" and the emotion of "anxiety".

Why is all this important? Well, it matters if you don't want to act like Pavlov's Dog during this holiday season when it comes to responding to the incessant ads for retail sales.

How can we break a learned reaction? There are a variety of ways, all require "mental training", attention and practice. A common guideline is that you cannot try to "break existing habits." That said, the connections between neurons will weaken over time if they are not used - but, this is a long process. The trick is to quickly build new, more powerful connections, that override the previous ones. For example:

- Adults with extreme fear to spiders have learned how to control emotions by using cognitive therapy techniques.
- Meditation practitioners can lead a more "mindful" life by being aware of emotions, feelings and thoughts as they arise, and learning how to let them go.
- Biofeedback-based programs often use games to help people learn how to manage emotions in order to win points.

But the starting point is always being conscious of what is going on. Now that the holiday season is approaching, how are advertisers trying to lure you to the stores to spend more money? Which ads respect your intelligence, and which ones treat you as if you were no better than Pavlov's dog?

UPDATE: This video just came in:

This article was written by Alvaro Fernandez from SharpBrains. If you are interested in contributing to the thinking process and become a guest writer on The Thinking Blog, find out more information here and be my guest!

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