How Transformative Tech Can Revolutionize Behavior Change

Whether you're hatching "new-you" resolutions or need to end a bad habit, there's a world of transformative wellness tech at your fingertips. Though some of it may shock you – literally.

Nichol Bradford: People often ask me what I think the limitations are for transformative technology. And I would say that I don’t think anything replaces sitting down one-on-one with someone that you love or care about. There’s nothing that replaces that. But we don’t live in an only one thing world. I really believe in having a suite of tools that we use. And so when you can’t be one-on-one with your loved one and you are forced to be at distance then to have things that support you in that. And in terms of other limitations I think a lot of the limitations are really our imagination because it’s out of our imaginations that we develop products. It isn’t really a coincidence that the first flip phones look like the communicators on Star Trek. Like that’s not a coincidence. It was sort of set and then we worked to make it so. And so I think with transformative technology or any technology really it’s being of the mindset that there won’t be one way and there shouldn’t be one input. So we should always prioritize real live interactions with other people. We should prioritize having healthy spaces and cities where people can connect and collide. We should have spaces where people of different backgrounds and socioeconomic levels come together so we don’t have stratified experiences.

Because part of growing up and becoming an adult is being exposed to a lot of different things. So we should have those too. And then we should also have technology that helps us work on the things that we’re working on. There’s one device that I particularly love. I’m really interested in behavior change. I’m really interested in behavior change because it’s really quite hard and there’s been a couple of studies that have come out on human willpower. And our willpower actually isn’t that strong. And so there’s two products that work on behavior change that I’ve been tracking. One uses affirmation and the other one uses cessation as a tool. So the cessation one is called Pavlok and it shocks you when you do something that you don’t want to do. So it’s a slight electrical shock but it shocks you nonetheless. And you can sort of amp it up if you want to. Right now there are some things that it can tell that you’re doing so you can put in a list of websites. So if you have a Facebook addiction and you want to get off that every time you go to Facebook the wearable which you wear on your wrist can shock you. Or they’ve really been helping people with porn addictions because there’s basically like ten words that matter and you can put all of those in the app and every time you go to a website with those words in it then you get shocked.

And they’re actually really helping people because if that’s a problem for you it’s a real problem. And so people need to have things that help them change the behaviors that they want to. The flip side of that is another device called Moti which I just love it. It’s this little ball that sits on your desk and it’s got a little face on it. And every time you do something that you want to do you touch it and it sort of – it blinks and vibrates and it coos. And it sounds like a really silly thing. You’re like why would you do that. But it turns out that our inner mind, our monkey mind, the lizard brain loves that. We just love it. And so every time you do something that you want to do, every time you go to bed early or you get up and go and exercise you touch it and it can track your – you tell it what you’re tracking and so you can accumulate rewards for your positive change. But you get this sort of physical sound reinforcement that oh, that was good. And in both cases they’re finding that they’re helping people change behaviors that people thought they couldn’t change. And so that’s a really great example of yes, there are limitations to technologies of any kind but there’s also so many great ways it can help people with private and personal goals that they have.

Willow Group, a company that aims to leverage technology to bring people peace of mind, is led by CEO Nichol Bradford. She is the first to admit that nothing replaces human connection, but the other side of the coin is that we don’t live in an all-or-nothing world; there can be a suite of tools to help people cope in their lives. If your loved ones can support you in breaking a bad habit, for example, that’s excellent. You could meditate and read to expand your understanding of what’s beneath your bad habit. Or, another tool in the box is the Pavlock.


What’s that? The Pavlock is an example of transformative technology that are coming into the market to help improve people’s lives. It’s a bracelet or cuff you wear, you can select a bad habit you want to break, and when you engage in that bad habit, the Pavlock will… electric shock you. It sounds like a gimmick, but this device works on our reptilian brains, creating an aversion that becomes associated with the habit you want to quit. There’s also a toned-down vibration setting that can promote awareness and mindfulness without all the voltage.

The Pavlock is a great example of transformative tech because it has a counterpart that helps you reach the same goal by a very different road. If the Pavlock is disciplinary, the MOTI works on positive incentives. It’s a small device that sits on your desk or table, and every time you engage in a good behavior you’d like to do more of, you touch it and it blinks colors, vibrates and coos. That’s pretty strange, but it turns out that on a deep level, humans love it. If you’re going to bed early, going for a short run, cooking dinner instead of getting take out, you press it for reinforcement, and it accumulates rewards for your positive action.

In transformative tech, the limit is our imagination, and in remembering that you choose your level of involvement. Nothing beats human connection, but a few science-backed bots can be empowering in achieving your personal and professional goals.

Nichol Bradford is the author of The Sisterhood.

Big Think Edge
  • "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose," Sherlock Holmes famously remarked.
  • In this lesson, Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How to think like Sherlock Holmes, teaches you how to optimize memory, Holmes style.
  • The goal is to expand one's limited "brain attic," so that what used to be a small space can suddenly become much larger because we are using the space more efficiently.

Active ingredient in Roundup found in 95% of studied beers and wines

The controversial herbicide is everywhere, apparently.

(MsMaria/Shutterstock)
Surprising Science
  • U.S. PIRG tested 20 beers and wines, including organics, and found Roundup's active ingredient in almost all of them.
  • A jury on August 2018 awarded a non-Hodgkin's lymphoma victim $289 million in Roundup damages.
  • Bayer/Monsanto says Roundup is totally safe. Others disagree.
Keep reading Show less
Big Think Edge
  • Our ability to behave rationally depends not just on our ability to use the facts, but on our ability to give those facts meaning. To be rational, we need both facts and feelings. We need to be subjective.
  • In this lesson, risk communication expert David Ropeik teaches you how human rationality influences our perception of risk.
  • By the end of it, you'll understand the pitfalls of your subjective risk perception system so that you can avoid these traps in the future.