The Pavlovian Response To Seeing Birthday Announcements On Facebook

from the ding-happy-birthday-ding-happy-birthday dept

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...


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    Evan (profile), Aug 31st, 2011 @ 8:36pm

    April Fools

    I always use April 1st as my Birthday on sites that require it. Always makes me smile when I see all those automated birthday wishes on April Fools' Day.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
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    Jose_X, Aug 31st, 2011 @ 9:06pm

    Barry P's explanation

    Now, statistics prove, prove that you've one birthday
    Imagine, just one birthday every year
    Ah, but there are three hundred and sixty four Facebook birthdays!
    Precisely why I keep wishing you the best cheer

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
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    Nick Coghlan (profile), Aug 31st, 2011 @ 9:15pm

    Relates to one of my favourite Facebook "infographics"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
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    Brad Hubbard (profile), Aug 31st, 2011 @ 10:20pm

    Work Smarter, not Harder

    So, I outsourced my birthday wishes to the Happy Birthday Extension. There are precious few people I want to write something specific to, but the feeling when you log in and see 200 "yay you're wonderful" messages is important to some people. So I compromised, sending them varying but generic messages, unless I really care about them, in which case it's a three- or four-sentence message about their importance to me.

    http://lifehacker.com/5835409/happybirthday-extension-send-out-b+day-wishes-on-facebook-so-you-d ont-have-to

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
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    Brad Hubbard (profile), Aug 31st, 2011 @ 10:24pm

    Re: Work Smarter, not Harder

    Sorry, I didn't make it clear in the original post - I'm not the only one to consider this, and there are many extensions and plugins that do the same thing. Fact is, birthday wishes are something we value to receive but put little thought into sending, so it's unsurprising this person saw so many duplicates. There are fewer than 20 people that I could even roughly guess at their birthday, let alone notice if they moved it every few months.

     

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  6.  
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    Jake, Aug 31st, 2011 @ 10:31pm

    I'm not sure this is directly Internet-related, let alone Pavlovian as such. If the fact that a casual acquaintance or work colleague is celebrating their birthday today comes up in conversation, social convention dicates you wish them many happy returns.

     

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  7.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Aug 31st, 2011 @ 10:54pm

    I've wished other people Happy Birthday on random days just to see if I can get anyone else to blindly wish it too.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
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    Just John (profile), Sep 1st, 2011 @ 1:37am

    Happy (un)birthday Mike

    Wishing you a very happy (un)birthday Mike & a wonderful year!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
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    Richard (profile), Sep 1st, 2011 @ 1:53am

    Using this phenomoenon for a ddos on Facebook and you have a whole new meaning to Birthday Attack

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
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    Jose_X, Sep 1st, 2011 @ 4:23am

    Re: Barry P's explanation

    Forgot to cite: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InSn2BLDwfQ Alice in Wonderland Disney "unbirthday song"

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 1st, 2011 @ 5:09am

    Re:

    Exactly. This is in no way a Pavlovian response. You don't wish "happy birthday" on instinct and the response given by these people wasn't 'automatic.' This is more of an analysis of how people trust information when it comes from a computer (e.g., like GPS stories) than anything else.

    Normally Mike is pretty good about pointing out that technology isn't the underlying problem, but he failed to do that here. Would this story have been any different if the same guy had walked around to his friends on those dates and said, "hey, it's my birthday!".

     

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  12.  
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    btrussell (profile), Sep 1st, 2011 @ 5:16am

    Re: Re:

    Nbdy tks anmr
    hd txt thm


    wdnt b ne diff

     

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  13.  
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    That Anonymous Coward (profile), Sep 1st, 2011 @ 6:14am

    Re:

    you just need to make a plugin that auto-responds to all messages. And then post how this is the most awesome plugin for Facebook, and it saves hairless kitten who need sweaters. It will spread like wildfire, like all FB virii.
    Then wait.

    tick tick tick tick boom

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
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    Kevin (PaxSkeptica) (profile), Sep 1st, 2011 @ 6:38am

    Wow

    I've seriously done the exact same thing. When I had Facebook, I always preferred to delete my birthday about two weeks prior to make sure that particular "bell" didn't ring. I rarely got any birthday messages at all. (Usually whomever I was dating would say something and I'd get a few follow-ups after that post from confused people saying, "Oh, it's your birthday? I'm so sorry! Why wasn't I notified?")

    I'd never done anything quite to this level (repeated "birthdays"), but I have set my birthday to a fake date once and laughed at all the people who posted.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 1st, 2011 @ 6:40am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Let's remember all of the posts on this site that point out that google (and search engines in general) isn't making anyone more stupid and that social networking software isn't making people communicate any less, especially not face-to-face.

    It is an ignorant trope that Twitter is undermining discourse.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 1st, 2011 @ 7:04am

    Whenever a friend of mine leaves his computer unlocked with Facebook up, I'll go over there and change his birthday to the next day. The next day, I watch as his profile blows up. Dick move? Sure. Hilarious? You'd better believe it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
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    Ninja (profile), Sep 1st, 2011 @ 7:14am

    Re: Re: Work Smarter, not Harder

    That. I don't even log into facebook that much (sometimes I spend almost a month without ever checking it) so I wouldn't even see the birthdays. I put the ones I want to remember on my Google Calendar and it sends me sms reminding my memory. I'd say I know the birthday dates of 10-15 ppl without my dear calendar ;)

     

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  18.  
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    btrussell (profile), Sep 1st, 2011 @ 9:16am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Hey, I'm no expert, just going by what I see.

    Speaking of which, where do you see twitter mentioned. Kids have been texting since before twitter, by @ 14 yrs.

    Girls average 80 texts a day. 1 every 18 minutes, not allowing for eating, sleeping, drinking...
    http://www.dailytech.com/Study+Teen+Girls+Average+80+Texts+Per+Day/article18172.htm



    Show us you're twits!© :) This is going to be my newest t-shirt.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Sep 1st, 2011 @ 9:51am

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Sorry, I was using Twitter as a proxy for current and prior forms of electronic discourse. I realize that seemed like a red herring.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
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    Anna, Sep 1st, 2011 @ 2:28pm

    Losing faith in humanity

    I posted a link to this article on my Wall with the comment "That's why I keep my birthday date private. Who cares - remembers when it is." Guess what started to happen? I am getting "happy birthday" messages from half of my FB "freinds". Sigh

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
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    Yogi Bear, Sep 1st, 2011 @ 3:08pm

    Hmm...

    You certainly have proved that people can't remember your birthday. What you have NOT proven (at least, I think so) is that the wishes you got were insincere. Food for thought??

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
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    Zot-Sindi, Sep 1st, 2011 @ 6:24pm

    Re: Hmm...

    when you fake your birthday over and over and the same people keep sending their wishes over and over without figuring out that it was faked, i think that pretty much proves they couldn't care less and are only reacting to a bell call

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
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    Zot-Sindi, Sep 1st, 2011 @ 6:27pm

    Re: Re: Hmm...

    or hell, even going "hmm.. wait a minute, didn't they JUST have their birthday last week"?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
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    Jarelis312 (profile), Sep 1st, 2011 @ 11:28pm

    clever

    I've always wanted to try this on my Facebook but I figured everyone would know or would call me out on it, but It's amazing on how people don't realize that they've been conditioned like that. lol

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
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    Bev, Sep 2nd, 2011 @ 5:57am

    Re: April Fools

    That's awesome! I just might have to try it.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
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    Michael J. Epstein, Sep 2nd, 2011 @ 8:17am

    I did it every day for several months at the end of last year...

    I think it's an offensively empty gesture and just proves that people don't know me at all. In fact, I made it my birthday every day for months at the end of last year and wrote a little bit about why at: http://bit.ly/ItsNotMyBDay

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27.  
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    Mike, Sep 2nd, 2011 @ 10:50am

    Interesting experiment. Just to clarify, the real Pavlovian experiment actually involved a light stimulus, not a bell.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28.  
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    lyn, Sep 3rd, 2011 @ 8:22am

    Actually, for this exact reason, I hide my birthday on facebook. I feel offended by the un-genuine responses for a birthday, and that 200 people that don't normally speak to me on other occasions will go and write something that really isn't meant. so the people who actually know my birthday will write on my wall, and the lucky lurkers who actually see that it's my birthday will have it on my wall.. so i wont be spammed by a 100 sweet-but-nothings.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29.  
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    Birthday Messages, Jan 11th, 2012 @ 8:32am

    Birthday Messages

    Oh my gosh this is hilarious. I was impressed that there were so few people that wished you a happy birthday on all three fake days. I wonder how many I would get??????

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30.  
    identicon
    Sean Morgan, Feb 8th, 2012 @ 1:41am

    automatic birthday wish

    I'm not too great about remembering birthdays so I use birthdayFB. It let's you pre-schedule happy birthday fb wall posts. http://bityhdayfb.com

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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