Pavlov’s Dog and the Notification Ding: Your Smartphone Glue

With just the "ding" of a smartphone enough to grab our attention, are we turning into Pavlov's dogs?


Picture this. You’re doing something…let’s say, reading a book, or watching TV. Just then, you get a “ding” on your phone. And no matter what you’re doing, you immediately go for your phone and check it out. Sound familiar? Well, it is. That notification ding is a glue that binds you helplessly to your smartphone.

The Notification Ding

How much time do you spend on your phone on average? 2 hours? 4? Or more? No matter how many hours of screen we take in, our attention never really diverts from our smartphones. Even in an unconscious state, our mind is on our phones. Our minds are always aware of our smartphones…of the fact that it can buzz any time with said notification. Our minds are waiting for it. And so, due to this, smartphones can make us look at them with so much as a simple ding! A notification is enough to make us drop what we’re doing and glance at our smartphones. Relatable?

I should think so. Because our smartphones are the “precious” devils. Smartphones have become such a huge part of our lives that our day starts and ends with one. Of course, they do help largely to do stuff, but it’s not what we’re addicted to. It’s the pleasure we derive from being validated, being part of something that outside of the monotony that pulls us. And so, the moment it beckons, we’re ready to be pulled into it…sometimes, staying there for considerable periods after checking the actual notification.

smartphone notification

Apps and Bells

Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Messenger, WhatsApp, Dating apps, or even work apps can easily grab our attention. That notification bell that alerts us of any message, likes, or comments, make our brains release dopamine – something that results in us feeling pleasure. And sometimes, getting a notification can be more powerful than actually looking into it.

That ping is telling us there is some type of reward there, waiting for us“, David Greenfield, Psychologist, and Asst. Clinical Professor at the University of Connecticut says. “Smartphone notifications have turned us all into Pavlov’s dogs

Think about this. More often than not, you might have felt excited to get a notification on your phone while doing something else, even though you have no idea what that is. Just a vibration or a ting gives you this “rush” and you hastily check it out. If it’s not that important to you, you simply put your phone back in your pocket. But you do check it.

Classical Conditioning

And that’s exactly how smartphones have turned us into Pavlov’s dogs. If you’re wondering what that is, take a walk back to Introductory Psychology. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, is known for his work on Classical Conditioning. It is a type of associative learning which suggests that a response can be produced by a trigger to a stimulus if the mind is trained to. Pavlov worked this out with his dogs. Before he fed his dogs, he sounded a bell to signal that it was time to feed and whenever the food was brought, they salivated. And over time, his dogs learned to associate the sound of the bell to feeding. And so, every time the bell sounded, the dogs salivated…whether the food was brought in or not.

classical conditioning

If you have a house pet, you might have noticed similar instances. Your dogs might know the sound of opening a packet of biscuits. And whenever you open a packet of anything, they come towards you, expecting something, even if you’re only opening a packet of soup…which is not for dogs, anyway.

Classical Conditioning and Smartphones

The point is, even though human behavior is more complex than you can fathom, it turns out our animal instincts are just as easy to control. And that’s what smartphones can do. They are associated with some of our needs on Maslow’s Hierarchy –  Belongingness and Esteem Needs. They help us get access to endless information, knowledge, and entertainment and also help us meet our needs of relatedness, and friendships. Our smartphones are a gateway to connections – a place in this world, and our notifications are associated with it. This is why, our response to these notification dings is, mostly, excitement.

smartphone notification

And this is why we are always aware of our phones, even though we, ourselves, are unaware of the fact that we are doing so. The situation is much worse, that, if you hear a notification sounds from someone else’s phones, you check yours too.

And maybe, you have felt this too – just random vibrations from your phone when it hasn’t actually happened at all. This is actually more common than you think and is known as Phantom Vibration Syndrome. You think your phone vibrated with some kind of notification but it actually hasn’t.

This is now turning out to be a problem. We divide our attention between our smartphones and the task at hand. And just a buzz or a ring or chime is enough to draw our attention fully on to our phones. This, of course, leads to a negative impact on our work, or social life. Also, you must be aware of those studies that suggest how smartphones and technology decrease our creativity and brain activity.

The Problem

When you’re glued to your smartphone, there are certain limits. And there are times when you realize that you need to cut back. You keep checking your phone every 5-10 minutes because every time you do, there’s something new waiting for you. And even though most of it might be bogus, every once in awhile, you find something good. And that boosts your dopamine levels even more. Meaning, you will keep surfing through useless content in the hopes that you’ll come across something good. (Studies suggest that this is also related to gambling…you keep on playing in the hopes that you’ll win eventually because the rush of winning once / twice is better than the risk of losing it all.)

smartphone notification dopamine

So, look for signs that you need to cut back. If your smartphone interferes with your sleep, or it leaves no time for your friends and family physically, it hampers your work, etc.

The Pavlov’s Dog Solution 

As grave of a problem, this can be, there is no perfect solution. We are so dependant on our smartphones, that parting with them is not an option. Cutting back can help, but it won’t totally solve the problem.

Many companies, now, are bringing features like the Zen Mode – it does not alert you for any kind of notification for a set period of time. And even then, when that Zen Mode is turned off, the rush of notifications we get all at once is enough to take you to a level of euphoria.

Of course, you can disable your push notifications altogether. But that, too, can interfere with your work and your digital social life. Finding a perfect balance is key, but that is difficult. Digital detoxing might help if you can implement it.


Smartphones have powerful control over us. They are mostly, irresistible. These notifications make us feel important and wanted. If you do go through a day without receiving any notifications, it makes you feel somewhat worthless and unwanted.

App makers have found a way to Classically Condition us, just like Pavlov’s dogs. The notification ding is our dinner bell, and the excitement we get is the way we salivate – even though there’s nothing relevant to look for. Who knew we evolved for millennia, only to be slaves to these little electronics in our pockets? Maybe, we humans aren’t so complex at all.

What are your thoughts on it?