Pavlovian Conditioning And Marriage

Nov 8, 2017
Originally published on December 7, 2017 1:29 pm
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Have you ever had a bad day at school or work or an awful commute home and then taken out your bad mood on a colleague or even your spouse? I'm going to bet you have. How's that?

New social science research has drawn insights from that common experience to potentially help people have stronger relationships. To explain, we are joined by NPR's social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam. Hi, Shankar.


MARTIN: How do you turn a bad commute or a bad day in general into something positive?

VEDANTAM: Well, what you can do is you can learn from it, Rachel. I was speaking with Jim McNulty. He's a psychologist at Florida State University. He reminded me of the famous experiments by Ivan Pavlov. If you ring a bell every time you feed a dog, eventually the sound of the bell alone will make the animal's mouth start to water. This is called conditioning.

McNulty thinks that our relationships are shaped by similar forces. When you have a bad commute and then see your spouse right after that, you associate your spouse with your bad mood even though your spouse is not responsible at all.

So McNulty and his colleagues - Michael Olson, Rachael Jones and Laura Acosta - asked if bad experiences can make us have negative associations with our partners, can we use the same conditioning system to create positive associations?

MARTIN: OK. Do tell. How do you do this?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Well, it sounds very silly, but what they did was simply the opposite of the bad commute. They showed people pictures that made them happy - pictures of cute animals, beaches, pizza - and then paired about 300 of those pictures with photographs of the volunteer's romantic partner.

JIM MCNULTY: Conditioning is learning. And it's learning to evaluate an object based on how that object is associated with other things. So I look at a picture of a baby bunny. It makes me feel positive. I'm also looking at a picture of my partner, and so I associate or I learn to associate my partner with that positive feeling.

MARTIN: So how does this work? I'm supposed to come home from a bad commute and instead of immediately giving my husband a scowl, I'm supposed to look at a picture of a baby bunny?

VEDANTAM: No, no. I don't think this has anything to do with what you do right after you come back from a commune. The idea is during the day - at multiple times during the day, if this was actually rolled out, you would essentially sit before a computer screen and see a number of positive pictures with your partner's face paired with those positive pictures.

MARTIN: Just train myself throughout the day?

VEDANTAM: Exactly. So it's a repetitive thing that's done in this experiment over several weeks. And people who saw their partner's faces paired with the positive pictures felt more positively about their partners.

MCNULTY: People like to think about themselves as logical. I feel about my partner the way I should. This shows that people are not necessarily logical. This may be something that we can use to help people who are separated - physically separated from their partners, like some of our military couples might be.

MARTIN: We've been laughing but that could be a really serious and important and helpful tool.

VEDANTAM: Indeed. This pilot study was funded, in fact, by the U.S. military which is interested in improving family relationships of service members who are deployed overseas. The important idea here, of course, Rachel, is not that a hack - you know, a little trivial hack can save a doomed marriage, but that everyday associations play a very powerful role in shaping the course of our relationships.

MARTIN: Keep that bunny picture handy, though.

VEDANTAM: There you go.

MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam - he joins us regularly to talk about social science research. He explores ideas about human behavior on his podcast and his radio show both called Hidden Brain. Shankar, thanks so much.

VEDANTAM: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.