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…

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Companies: facebook

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Comments on “The Pavlovian Response To Seeing Birthday Announcements On Facebook”

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Brad Hubbard (profile) says:

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.

Brad Hubbard (profile) says:

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.

Ninja (profile) says:

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 😉

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 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!”.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: 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.

btrussell (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 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…

Show us you’re twits!? 🙂 This is going to be my newest t-shirt.

Kevin (PaxSkeptica) (profile) says:


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.

lyn says:

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.

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