Feedback loops to help us pray

Religion / Web/Tech

There’s a reasonably well understood phenomenon in human behavior called a feedback loop. You see the way it works every time you drive by one of the those auto-sensing speed limit signs. (The Speed limit is XX; Your speed is YY) The idea is that seeing the data causes us to be much more likely to respond the way we know we’re supposed to respond.

A company is taking the concept and applying it to the problem of people neglecting to take their prescription medications:

“The device is simple. When a patient is prescribed a medication, a physician or pharmacy provides a GlowCap to go on top of the pill bottle, replacing the standard childproof cap. The GlowCap, which comes with a plug-in unit that Rose calls a night-light, connects to a database that knows the patient’s particular dosage directions—say, two pills twice a day, at 8 am and 8 pm. When 8 am rolls around, the GlowCap and the night-light start to pulse with a gentle orange light. A few minutes later, if the pill bottle isn’t opened, the light pulses a little more urgently. A few minutes more and the device begins to play a melody—not an annoying buzz or alarm. Finally, if more time elapses (the intervals are adjustable), the patient receives a text message or a recorded phone call reminding them to pop the GlowCap. The overall effect is a persistent feedback loop urging patients to take their meds.

These nudges have proven to be remarkably effective. In 2010, Partners HealthCare and Harvard Medical School conducted a study that gave GlowCaps to 140 patients on hypertension medications; a control group received nonactivated GlowCap bottles. After three months, adherence in the control group had declined to less than 50 percent, the same dismal rate observed in countless other studies. But patients using GlowCaps did remarkably better: More than 80 percent of them took their pills, a rate that lasted for the duration of the six-month study.”

More here.

I saw that and started thinking if we could do something similar with, oh I don’t know…, maybe a prayer book? Wouldn’t it be great to have a prayer book beside your bed equipped with a glowing cross as a reminder to get us to read compline before bedtime? Or on our desk to remind us to say noonday prayers?

I suppose you could do the same thing with a rosary. Or a prie dieu. Or a cross on the wall in the office. Or at the dinner table, or…

Do you think it would work? Are there other places we could make use of this idea to help people remember to say their prayers?

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Heh – don’t need technology for the Most High. Such a one is always present. Need constant refilling and long standing patience, mercy, correction, and compassion – but those are a given.

    I have thought much recently about technology continuously in peoples’ ears on the street. Not sure how all this connectivity will change us. Still room for constant prayer – no bluetooth or ebanana needed.

  2. I have made a few attempts to use technology for prayer/meditation. When I was doing simple mindfulness meditations following the deaths of my parents, I used a device that simulated a person striking temple bells. I could set it to “ring” different tones at the beginning, end and pre-defined middle points of meditation to “shift” from one meditative task to the next.
    More recently, I have tried setting iPHone alarms that would “beep” on the hour, rather like living in the presence of a church with a great clock tower or near one that rang bells at specified prayer times (like ringing the Angelus). I have also “followed” The Virtual Abbey which “tweets” the daily office in abbreviated format for “communal” prayer. What all of these have as defaults is that they are inflexible. Once set, the time that goes off is the time. Once the “tweet” starts, it continues whether I pay any attention to it or not. As someone whose schedule daily is both defined but also continually “interrupted” by exceptions and extensions and shortenings, I have found it difficult to incorporate any of these things into my life in a holistic sense. It may be one thing to finally be “irritated” enough to open the pill bottle to shut the thing up. It is not clear if this “irritation” would lead to a pattern of regular prayer.

  3. Paul Martin says

    It seems like there would be an obvious tie in with the electronic prayer book on your Kindle or other smart device. Kindles and iPads have to be easier to program than pill bottles. Perhaps it could grab some sacred music from your iTunes library and start playing something to put you in the mood.

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