Why the military got scientists to show married couples puppy pictures.

Marriage losing that spark? You know what could help? A corgi puppy running through a field of grass.

Image via iStock.

Or, more specifically, the picture of a corgi puppy.


Florida State University professor James McNulty and a colleague, University of Tennessee professor Michael Olson, got a grant from the U.S. Department of Defense to find a way to help military couples cope with the stress of separation.

McNulty, knowing the human being's love of things like adorable animals, chose to show people cute bunnies and puppies to test the idea of automatic association.

As you see, hear, and feel things, your brain sifts and categorizes it, building unconscious associations. A picture of your spouse, for instance, might be tied to feelings of home, safety, and love. The next time you see them, your brain is immediately ready with a slew of positive emotions.

Unfortunately for newlyweds or military spouses separated by distance, their brains never shut off this sorting machine. Over time, the stress, boredom, and dark clouds of daily life can creep in and dull that emotional spark.

What the researchers suspected is that, just as any negative association could dull the spark, any positive association could rekindle it.

Positive associations like, say, bunnies.

OK, this was just an excuse for another bunny picture. Image from skeeze/Pixabay.

They recruited 144 different couples. Every three days, the couples would be emailed short slideshows featuring pictures of their spouse mixed in with either positive words and pictures (puppies, beautiful sunsets, etc.) or neutral images (like drinking straws or buttons).

The paper did not say anything on the possibility of avid button-ophiles. Photo from Richard Wheeler/Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of the trial, the scientists compared both self-reported satisfaction and measurements of unconscious reactions from the two groups. The couple who saw the positive images (bunnies and puppies) not only had more positive unconscious reactions, they actually reported greater real-world satisfaction as well.

"I was actually a little surprised that it worked," said McNulty in a press release.

More than just an interesting psychological trick, this could actually help people.

McNulty and Olsen aren't saying this will empower each and every relationship. How we actually talk with and treat each other is still far more important. But they do think this kind of intervention could be helpful to people in marriage counseling or in long-distance relationships. Like, say, those deployed overseas.

And, for those not traveling abroad, maybe it's just a good reminder that our brains can both help and hurt our relationships but that either way, we have a bit of power over it.

McNulty and Olsen's work appeared in the journal Psychological Science on May 31, 2017.

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