Researchers have come up with another reason why we are attracted to irresistible photos of puppies and kittens, and another reason that we can never get our fill of these adorable photos.
Psychological scientists from Florida State University, led by James K. McNulty, are using cute animal photos to rekindle marriages that might be in the doldrums. These researchers were tasked by the Department of Defense to come up with a strategy “to help married couples cope with the stress of separation and deployment.” McNulty and his team set out “to develop a procedure that could help soldiers and other people in situations that are challenging for relationships.”
Using techniques developed by none other than Pavlov, they employed a positive feedback mechanism called evaluative conditioning. They would show images of a spouse that were repeatedly paired with very positive words or images (like puppies, kittens and bunnies). In theory, the positive feelings elicited by the positive images and words would become automatically associated with images of the spouse after practice.
Each spouse was asked to individually view a brief stream of images once every 3 days for 6 weeks. Embedded in this stream were pictures of their partner. Those in the experimental group always saw the partner’s face paired with positive stimuli (e.g., an image of a puppy or the word “wonderful”) while those in the control condition saw their partner’s face matched to neutral stimuli (e.g., an image of a button). Couples also completed measures of automatic partner attitudes and explicit marital satisfaction at baseline and once every two weeks for 8 weeks
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The study concluded that “spouses who viewed their partners paired with positive stimuli demonstrated more-positive automatic partner attitudes than did control spouses, and these attitudes predicted increased self-reported marital satisfaction over time.”
As McNulty noted that the positive completion of the study:
“I was actually a little surprised that it worked,” McNulty explained. “All the theory I reviewed on evaluative conditioning suggested it should, but existing theories of relationships, and just the idea that something so simple and unrelated to marriage could affect how people feel about their marriage, made me skeptical.”