James K. McNulty of Florida State University and his team of psychological scientists were not expecting this. They’d wondered if they could use conditioning to warm the hearts of married couples gone a little cold from numbing day to day life by building associations between spouses’ faces and pictures of adorable puppies and bunnies. “I was actually a little surprised that it worked,” McNulty tells APS, a publication of the Association of Psychological Science. “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.”
The study’s setup
The team’s study was published in the journal Psychological Science. Their experiments looked at “whether directly altering affective associations involving a relationship partner through evaluative conditioning can lead to changes in relationship satisfaction.” The researchers worked with 144 couples from in and around Tallahassee, Florida, all under 40, and all married for less than five years. Of the couples, 42% had children and the average age of the subjects was around 28 (husbands, 28.72 years old; wives, 27.87).
After questioning the couples on their level of marital satisfaction using three tests commonly used for this purpose, nine individual photographs were taken of each person, with five smiling expressions and four neutral ones.
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