S u m m a r y :
Viewing pictures of cute animals can help save marriages, suggests a new study published in the journal Psychological Science.
Marriage, A Challenge
Marriage is not for the weak, because when the initial passion wears off, you have to work to maintain the relationship. How to keep the spark alive, then? A team of psychological scientists from Florida State University have come up with an unconventional idea: looking at pictures of cute animals like bunnies and dogs.
Changing Thoughts With Bunnies & Dogs
Led by James K. McNulty, the team intended to develop an intervention that would tackle the problem of monotonous behaviours; when daily behaviours remain the same, marriage satisfaction is thought to decrease, says previous research. With the aim of improving the quality of relationships, McNulty’s method zooms in on the types of thoughts a spouse entertains concerning his partner. So, the study focuses on changing someone’s thoughts instead of changing behaviour itself. The scientists wanted to understand whether a subtle retraining of the automatic associations one has when thinking of one’s spouse could do the job.
Associating Bunnies With Your Spouse
According to McNulty, an important source of our feelings is associating our spouses with positivity. These links can come from both the partners themselves and from unrelated entities like cute animals.
When you constantly link a positive stimulus with an unrelated one, you can, thus, create a positive association. We can find this conditioning in the Pavlov’s experiments whereby the scientist trained dogs to expect food at the sound of a bell, and ultimately the dogs would salivate upon hearing the ringing.
Following in the steps of Pavlov, McNulty and his colleagues put together an intervention called evaluative conditioning. Based on this, pictures of spouses were repeatedly paired with images of bunnies and puppies. The theory behind this action is that, over time, the positive feelings generated by the positive images would become linked with images of the spouses.
Pictures of Puppies & Buttons
The participants of the study first completed relationship satisfaction surveys. Their immediate, automatic attitudes concerning their spouses were also recorded. Then, each of them viewed a series of pictures once every 3 days; this continued for 6 weeks. One group viewed images of their spouse and positive-stimuli ones like images of dogs, and the word “wonderful”. Another group (the control group) looked at pictures of the spouses paired with neutral stimuli (like a “button”).
Then, the couples completed implicit measures of attitude towards their partners; they were to quickly respond to questions concerning the emotional tone of positive and negative words following the brief viewing of faces including their spouse’s.
Marital Satisfaction Boosted With Positive Pairings
The results show that participants of the first group had more positive automatic responses to their spouse as opposed to those who viewed neutral pairings. Furthermore, overall marriage quality appears to have been enhanced as more positive automatic reactions to the fellow spouse were linked with better marital satisfaction over the study period.
Behaviour Also Matters, Of Course
The authors mention that behaviour is also relevant to marital satisfaction. While the study focused on thoughts instead of behaviour, it does not mean that the latter does not have its own importance. As McNulty and his team say, the interactions within couples are the most important factor influencing automatic associations.