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Yes, puppy images can help your relationship, but that’s not the big picture


A psychological study about emotional conditioning tells us as much about what appeals to news editors as what appeals to intimate partners, writes Tim Wallace.


A puppy wearing a pink bandanna and glasses
A serious business: research into emotional conditioning is about more than just cute puppies.
Retales Botijero / Getty

If real-world proof were needed that cute animals encourage a “positive affect” in people, consider the widespread media coverage given this week to research suggesting that looking at images of puppies and bunnies can improve human relationships.

That, at any rate, is how outlets from The Wall Street Journal to the Hindustan Times reported the upshot of research published in the journal Psychological Science.

As National Geographic put it: “Struggling to stay happy in a long-distance relationship? Here, have some puppy pictures.”

Who could blame them? The spin dutifully reflected that given in the advance press release from the Association for Psychological Science – proving, at the very least, that psychologists know a thing or two about how to hit media-sharing buttons.

Now, headlines such as “How viewing cute animals can help rekindle marital spark” or “The secret to relationship success may be bunny photos” or “Try puppy pictures for a better relationship” weren’t entirely wrong, but nor did they perfectly reflect the point of the research led by James McNulty of the Department of Psychology or Florida State University.

The real point was to test prevailing theories about why some many modern relationships fail to last the distance, with divorce rates in industrialised countries hovering between 30% and 50%. Most theoretical models, the authors note, link relationship satisfaction to the behavioral exchanges that occur between partners, or at least to perceptions or evaluations of those behaviours.

The authors, on the other hand, had a different idea – one they call “evaluative conditioning”: what if one’s sense of satisfaction with a partner is influenced by factors that really have little to with them? That is to say, what is perceptions are affected by less-than-conscious associations with other factors, or “affect unrelated to the partner”? Negative factors could include stressors such as the responsibilities of parenthood and financial pressures. Positive factors could include owning a pet dog.

“Psychologists have long known that misattribution processes can lead affect from one source to become associated with a different source,” the authors write. “In other words, simple associations between the partner and unrelated positive or negative affect may alter automatic partner attitudes even in the absence of systematic changes in the partner’s behaviour or related cognitions.

Which is where the photographs of puppies and bunnies come in, as relatively assured transmitters of positive affect.

“We pretested a bunch of images to find those that people tended to like the most, and it turns out that people do in fact love baby animals,” McNulty explains. Pleasingly, that love has also translated into media attention for the research’s findings: “It is a way to get people’s attention in media stories,” McNulty agrees, “and a good way to make science more relatable.”

Along with the pictures of cuddly animals, the researchers also used “positive stimuli” such as photographs of sunsets and words such “wonderful ” and “fabulous” in their experiments. These involved 144 couples, all under the age of 40 and married for less than five years. Couples were split into two groups. In one group, participants viewed a series of images that included photos of their partner along with the “positive stimuli”. In a second, control, group, participants got “neutral” stimuli (such as an image of a button). The experiment required viewing the images once every three days for six weeks.

The result: participants who viewed their partners paired with positive stimuli exhibited “more positive automatic partner attitudes” after the intervention than did the participants who viewed their partners paired with neutral stimuli.

What this suggests is that our feelings are, at least in part, malleable, and can be influenced, or conditioned in a manner similar to Pavlov’s dog, who were trained to associate the sound of a bell with food. “One ultimate source of our feelings about our relationships can be reduced to how we associate our partners with positive affect,” McNulty says, “and those associations can come from our partners but also from unrelated things, like puppies and bunnies."

McNulty and his co-authors acknowledge that behaviour is not unimportant – “In fact, behavioural exchanges involving the partner are a primary source of automatic affective partner associations” – but the “Pavlovian” power of positive affect is such that it can even be used to improve relationships with people for whom one has neutral or negative feelings.

“Even those who were not so happy to begin with demonstrated similar benefits,” McNulty says. “Such people did not necessarily become as happy as everyone else; like the initially happy people, they experienced a small boost relative to their starting point.”

The findings also have application more generally. “There is quite a bit of work showing that evaluative conditioning can change attitudes towards a variety of objects,” McNulty says. “What’s interesting about our findings is that they show such effects generalise to objects that we not only feel very strongly about but also have repeated experiences with — our spouses.”

Tim Wallace is a contributor to Cosmos Magazine
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