On being … behaviour modified

By Ingrid Sapona

My introduction to the concept of “behaviour modification” came when I was a youngster. I first heard it from my oldest sister, who was studying to be a teacher. My understanding of it back then was that it was something teachers did to try to get students to change some sort of bad behavior to something that the teacher thought was better. Though I was young, I remember being kind of appalled at the idea of teachers learning a technique to manipulate kids’ behavior.

Fast forward 30 years to the early 2000s and the topic came up again when I was doing some work for a client. That client was designing energy conservation programs that relied on behaviour modification. For example, to get people to switch their consumption to off-peak hours, people were offered special meters they could plug different appliances into to find out how much energy each appliance draws. The meter would also automatically calculate the cost of running the appliance at high demand times and at off-peak times. The whole point was to get them to understand the exact cost benefits of changing their behaviour. I have to admit, in that context, I didn’t find behaviour modification the least bit sinister – if anything, I thought it was pretty clever.

Lately I’ve been working on modifying my own behaviour after I realized technology had modified me in a way I wasn’t too pleased about. It started a few years ago when my (then) cable company began offering customers the ability to “pause live t.v.” When it came out, I thought it was the stupidest “feature” I had ever heard of, and I sure as heck wasn’t going to pay for it. But, when they upgraded my digital recorder, it was one of a few new features included at no extra cost.

I soon discovered how handy it was to simply pause the show I was watching when the phone rang. Even better, however, was the ability to rewind live t.v. I can’t tell you how often someone would say something in a news story and I’d think, “Did I hear that right?” No problem, I could just rewind a bit and listen again.

Little did I know, however, that this handy feature was taking a toll on my listening skills. I first realized my ability to listen and synthesize what I’d heard was suffering when I found myself feeling frustrated that I couldn’t rewind when I was listening to the news on the car radio. I’d get so irritated because I couldn’t go back and re-listen, as I could with my t.v.

I’ve since changed television providers and so I no longer have the ability to pause or rewind live t.v. I don’t mind admitting I do miss it. But, giving them up is for the best, as it’s forced me to pay better attention and focus more on what I hear.

Having realized how a seemingly minor technological change can subtly – and negatively – cause changes to my behavior, I can’t help wonder if there are other ways my behaviour is being modified that I’m not even aware of. What about you? Has someone – or something – modified your behaviour? If so, is it for the best, or is it something you might want to (re)modify?

© 2017 Ingrid Sapona


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