Even the study author said: "I was actually a little surprised that it worked."
According to new research published in the journal Psychological Science, you can change your 'tude towards a person by tricking your brain into associating them with positive words or images—like cute photos of puppies and bunnies.
Researchers set out to see if it was possible to subtly retrain your brain's automatic associations about your S.O. For example, if seeing your spouse automatically triggers an image of the dirty dishes they left all over the kitchen this morning, it might be possible to swap that image out with something more positive.
To test out their theory, the researchers recruited 144 couples under the age of 40, who had been married less than five years. They measured both their overall relationship satisfaction as well as their immediate automatic attitudes towards their partner. Over the next six weeks, each participant was asked to view a series of images every three days. In the experimental group, this series involved a photo of their partner paired with a positive stimulus, like a picture of a puppy or the word "wonderful." While in the control group, the spouse's image was always paired with a neutral image or word.
Throughout the study, researchers continued to test each partner's automatic attitudes towards each other, and they found that all those positive puppy images really did have an effect. Participants in the experimental condition showed more positive automatic reactions towards their partner. On top of that, all those positive feels added up to greater marriage satisfaction.
"I was actually a little surprised that it worked," James K. McNulty, Ph.D., lead author of the study said in a press release. "Just the idea that something so simple and unrelated to marriage could affect how people feel about their marriage, made me skeptical."
If this tricky strategy sounds familiar, it's because it is—this is the same type of conditioning used in the famous Pavlov's Dog experiment (you know, the one with the bell and dog food). Simple but totally effective.
Of course this doesn't mean that cuddling up for cute animal videos on YouTube will solve all your marital problems, but the findings do suggest that participating in positive activities with your partner—like taking up a fun hobby or going on a trip together—could help boost your feelings about them. And if you're eager to try the cute-photo method, keep in mind that this study only looked at the effects of puppies and bunnies in particular (but we're willing to bet that a cute kitten photo or video of a turtle eating a berry would do the trick too).