• The Pavlok is wearable device that zaps you with an electric shock to keep you from eating that extra dumpling (and performing other 'bad' habits). (Boston Globe/Getty Images)
Would you buy a wearable device to give yourself painful electrical shocks if it stopped you from overeating?
By
Yasmin Noone

22 Mar 2018 - 2:52 PM  UPDATED 22 Mar 2018 - 3:27 PM

How badly do you want to lose weight, stop eating sugar or change your fat-inducing lifestyle habits? Is your desire bad enough to shock yourself with a mild electrical current every time you reach for a glutinous Chinese dumpling or sugary slice of cake?

Literally shocking yourself with electricity every time you overeat may sound drastic, but it’s actually a thing. In fact, if you really wanted to, you could buy an aversion-therapy wearable gadget to shock you into breaking your bad food habits right now. That’s right: you can actually pay money for a device that will painfully scare you away from ever eating a cupcake again.

Of course watches or other wearable fitness devices don’t promise to intentionally zap you with 50-to-450 volts upon request. But this one does.

One of the more popular electro-shock, habit-changing devices on the market is called Pavlok.

The wearable device, whose development was initially paid for through crowdfunding, looks just like a Fitbit and has a wristband similar in appearance to a watch. Of course watches or other wearable fitness devices don’t promise to intentionally zap you with 50-to-450 volts upon request. But this one does.

The makers of the Pavlok describe the feeling of receiving a zap as being “a lot like a static shock you get when you touch a doorknob after rubbing your feet on the carpet”.

“The electrical stimulus is carefully designed so that it is enough to be uncomfortable, but not so strong that it hurts (and nowhere near dangerous – the Shock Clock is CE/FCC certified and 10,000 Pavlok users have proven it is safe and effective).”

Do we really need to be ‘shocked’?

The idea behind the product – and the product’s name – is based on the theory of Pavlovian conditioning and the famous ‘Pavlov’s dog’ experiment by Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov.

The behavioural concept of classic conditioning, which is also the foundation of aversion therapy, is all about breaking habits. It’s believed that you can break one habit or retrain a person to create a new positive habit by using a non-neutral stimulus to produce a desired unconditioned response.

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“The Pavlok influences the automatic habits engrained in your brain by actually surprising the stimulus with something unpleasant,” says a leading behavioural psychologist, Professor Ivo Vlaev in the SBS show, The Diet Testers.

“This device delivers an electric shock. The idea is actually to shock yourself in a situation where you face temptation. You may see a Chinese pork bun [you want to eat] and so you press it.”

In short, by exposing yourself to an electric shock, you will start to associate an undesirable behaviour (eating pork buns) with pain and ideally, you will break your habit.

“The idea is actually to shock yourself in a situation where you face temptation. You may see a Chinese pork bun [you want to eat] and so you press it.”

Does it work?

Dr Xand van Tulleken road-tests the Pavlok in episode four of the current series of The Diet Testers, airing on SBS Thursday 22 March at 8.35pm. In doing so, he aims to determine whether a wearable device that uses electroshocks to modify undesirable behaviour can change his own overeating habits.

After receiving a test shock, administered by Prof Vlaev in the show, Dr Xand responds with an immediate look of pain across his face. “That’s extremely unpleasant,” Dr Xand says. “My whole hand is tingling.”

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Dr Xand and his father then go to a Chinese restaurant to test whether the Pavlok can modify his infatuation with - and tendency to overeat - the Asian cuisine.

Although Dr Xand is wearing the device, he hands complete control over the timing and intensity of the electric shocks to his father, who can operate the Pavlok from his mobile phone using an app. “See if you can stop me eating,” Dr Xand tells his dad. 

Initially, Dr Xand seems to beat the machine, as he continues to eat and overcome the pain of the zaps administered by his father. But then, his father ups the frequency of the electrical shocks.

“That is amazing. If you keep doing this and I can’t take this [device] off, I’m done.” Dr Xand quits eating within a few seconds.

“My hand still hurts. The Pavlock did work on me. That was a shocker.”

"My only problem is that I don’t like pain and that was quite unpleasant. But for all of you latent masochists out there, the Pavlok does the job.”

At first glance, Dr Xand concludes, the Pavlok seems gimmicky. “But there is good science behind aversion therapy."

Aversion therapy is nothing new, having been around as a formal therapy for well over 80 years. It was commonly used in addiction treatment and more specifically employed to treat alcoholism.

"My only problem is that I don’t like pain and that was quite unpleasant," says Dr Xand. "But for all of you latent masochists out there, the Pavlok does the job.”

What do others think? 

The Pavlok is marketed as being able to help you break many habits - like smoking, waking up late and 'being lazy' - as well as overeating. It also comes with an alarm and vibration stimuli for those who don’t want to use its zapping function.  

According to a New York Times article about the Pavlok, researchers have questioned the ethical nature of the intervention when more comfortable psychological treatments for obesity and overeating are available. Specialists also raised the point that education should go hand-in-hand with the product so that it is not misused.

The reviewer commented that, “the test zap not only stung, but it caused my hand to spasm uncontrollably.” 

A review by The Irish Times also gave the device a three-out-of-five star rating. The reviewer commented that, “the test zap not only stung, but it caused my hand to spasm uncontrollably” after using the Pavlok to break a nail-biting habit.

However, the reviewer added, it’s not a magic solution and the user still has to do the work. “It takes a lot of willpower to shock yourself regularly, especially at the higher end of the scale.” It’s also not foolproof because technically, if you don’t want to get zapped, the user can just not wear the device. And of course, if you don't enjoy feeling pain, it may not be the product for you.

Want to know more about what's behind some of the most popular dieting methods around? Watch the new season of 'The Diet Testers', airing on Thursdays at 8.35pm on SBS from 1 March.

Episodes will be available to watch after broadcast on SBS On Demand. 

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