The Pavlovian Response To Seeing Birthday Announcements On Facebook

The famous experiment by Ivan Pavlov, which demonstrated classical conditioning, involved ringing a bell every time a dog was served food, and noting that after a few times of this, the dog associated the bell with food and salivated when the bell was rung. We’ve accidentally run a nearly identical experiment at home with my own dog, who is quite calm most of the time but barks whenever someone she doesn’t recognize approaches our door. Since many of those people ring the doorbell, she now associates the doorbell with “time to bark.” And she’ll do so even if she’s standing outside with me, with the door wide open, when I ring the doorbell.

But, of course, dogs aren’t the only ones subject to Pavlovian responses. A somewhat hilarious story in Slate from a few weeks ago demonstrates how birthday messages on Facebook seem to elicit the same sort of Pavlovian response from people. David Plotz noticed how “polluted” Facebook seemed to get with birthday wishes on the said day for any of your friends. He also realized that these messages didn’t really feel all that authentic, since they felt “programmed” in response to the little Facebook bell. So he decided to run an experiment.

I was born on Jan. 31, but I’ve always wanted a summer birthday. I set my Facebook birthday for Monday, July 11. Then, after July 11, I reset it for Monday, July 25. Then I reset it again for Thursday, July 28. Facebook doesn’t verify your birthday, and doesn’t block you from commemorating it over and over again. If you were a true egomaniac, you could celebrate your Facebook birthday every day.

He noted that for July 11th, he received 119 birthday wishes via Facebook. Four close friends were confused, but “most of them attributed the confusion to their own faulty memories.” When July 25th came around, he received another 105 birthday wishes. The number of people suspecting something was up was nine. The really stunning thing:

Of the 105 birthday wishes, 45 of them—nearly half—came from people who had wished me a Facebook happy birthday two weeks earlier.

On July 28th, just three days later, when it was his birthday again, he still ended up with 71 birthday wishes. 16 people noticed something was up. Though it appears lots of people still hadn’t caught on:

Almost 30 people wished me a happy birthday on July 28 having already wished me a happy birthday on one of my previous non-birthdays. Sixteen people sent me Facebook birthday wishes on all three Facebook birthdays, not noting or perhaps not caring about the repetition. One friend even wished me four happy birthdays, congratulating me twice on one of my fake days. The messages from one of these three-time greeters, a friend I’ve never met named Barry P., were almost poignant.

On July 11, he wrote: “Wishing you a very happy birthday David & a wonderful year!”

On July 25, he upped it: “Wishing you a very happy birthday David & your best year ever!”

On July 28, the superlative was gone: “Wishing you a very happy birthday David & a terrific year!”

So, the next time you’re feeling down, just trying ringing that doorbell and watching all your friends salivate in response, wishing you the very best…

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