Guilt By Association Gets You Out of Bed

When the young and naive me first learned how to use my phone’s alarm clock, I was overjoyed. Instead of beeping obnoxiously, the system would serenade me with my favorite jams. It only took two weeks, though, for my happiness to be shattered; I started hating my most beloved songs.

For a couple of mornings, I wore a self-satisfied grin as I trundled out of bed to silence the cheerful music blaring in my room. But it wasn’t long before my body decided that it didn’t in fact wish to rouse itself from that perfect warm spot in my bed, even with John Lennon’s strident voice echoing off the walls. My natural instinct to hate waking up started to take precedence, and before I knew it, I was growling vicious death threats at my alarm tunes. These ill-tempered sentiments were sadly not confined to the morning; every time afterward that I heard “Good Day Sunshine” I would wrinkle my nose in irritation and skip it. I had in effect inadvertently trained myself to associate that particular song with the most disagreeable experience of being woken up.

This veritable tragedy is one of the effects of conditioning, the learning process by which we develop subconscious reactions to various stimuli. Famed Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, the star of high school psychology class lectures, first illustrated the phenomenon in 1901 with the help of several canine subjects. Dogs were repeatedly presented with fragrant food while a bell was being rung in the background. In the first few trials, they would salivate in anticipation every time they saw the food. Yet the dogs gradually realized that every time the bell rang, food would arrive. As a result, in later trials the bell could be rung without the food also being presented, and the dog would start salivating as if it were expecting the dish to come with the sound.

This associative behavior, sans salivation, is very common. An important aspect of the conditioning process is that it is intended as a survival mechanism of sorts to help steer us away from danger and toward food and shelter. If a certain piece of sushi, for example, makes you violently ill, you will pointedly avoid eating more of the same in the future to prevent more mishaps. Additionally, you may cringe every time you so much as walk near The Bistro. Interestingly, some forms of conditioning are not solely elicited by biological stimuli like sickness; you may find yourself uncomfortable in Solis Hall because you once had a dreadful math midterm there.

However, there’s a bright side. It just so happens that we can manipulate those hated alarms to make our days a little better if we use them sparingly. For example, a unique song can be reserved for especially early mornings to galvanize your slumbering self into action. Although you may end up with a strong dislike of its opening chords, your body will associate the song with especially early wakeups and will be more likely to get out of bed feeling refreshed and ready.

Although this might motivate you to start your day off with your Top 10 playlist, be wary. If you happen to hurl your phone across the room in a sleep-deprived rage to silence the alarm, you’ll only have your favorite songs to blame.

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