Relationships: Benefits of Classical Conditioning

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Here’s an interesting example of classical conditioning being applied to help solve a serious problem.

The Military Suicide Research Consortium at Florida State University received a Department of Defense grant to find ways to prevent suicides by military members (Joiner, 2017). One avenue of research looked at ways of strengthening marriages, reasoning that those with stronger relationships are less likely to take their own lives (Improving marriages…, n.d.).

Military marriages face a number of challenges, including lengthy deployments. While many factors influence decisions to divorce, spending months away from one’s partner is a likely contributing culprit. “[S]erving lengthy deployments increases the risk of divorce and that the longer the deployment, the greater the risk of divorce” (Improving marriages…, n.d.). Female military service members are almost three times as likely to divorce as their male counterparts. In 2016, for example, 7.7% of female Marines divorced compared to 2.8% of male Marines. Overall, 3.1% of military personnel divorced in 2016 (Bushatz, 2017).   

Let’s make a quick digression to talk about divorce rates. “The military divorce rate is calculated by comparing the number of troops listed as married in the Pentagon's personnel system at the beginning of the fiscal year with the number who report divorces over the year” (Bushatz, 2017). These numbers cannot be compared to national data since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calculates divorce differently. Forty-five state health departments send the number of divorces in their states to the CDC. Because researchers at the CDC don’t know how many marriages were in each of those states to begin with, they can’t calculate a percentage of divorces like the military can. Instead, because the CDC researchers know the population of those 45 states, they can calculate a divorce rate per 1,000 people. In 2015, for example, those 45 reporting states had a combined population of 258,518,265. The number of divorces that year in those 45 states? 800,909. That works out to a divorce rate of 3.1 per 1,000 people (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017).

Now, back to helping marriages succeed. Is there a low-cost way to strengthen relationships even when the marriage partners are separated by thousands of miles for months at a time? James McNulty, Michael Olson, and colleagues (2017) thought that classical conditioning could work. Couples, 144 of them, were randomly divided into an experimental group and a control group. Every three days for a total of 13 sessions, participants experienced 225 trials where images or words flashed on a computer screen either singly or paired. Participants were to hit the spacebar when something related to relationships appeared, such as a wedding cake. Embedded within those 225 trials were 25 trials where the participant’s partner’s photo was paired with another photo. Those in the experimental condition always saw the partner’s photo paired with positive stimuli, such as photos of puppies. Those in the control condition always saw the partner’s photo paired with neutral stimuli, such as photos of buttons.  

Every two weeks from the start of the conditioning trials to two weeks post conditioning, participants completed a series of dependent measures. A priming task timed how quickly participants associated positive words with their partners. And researchers, well, just asked participants how they felt about their marriages. On the priming task, those in the experimental condition reacted faster when positive words were associated with their partner than those in the control condition. And the faster those reaction times, the more likely the participant was to say they were happy in their marriages.


Classical conditioning in the experimental condition

                                positive photos (UCS) --> positive feelings (UCR)

partner photos --> positive photos (UCS) --> positive feelings (UCR)

partner photos (CS) -----------------------------> positive feelings (CR)

The researchers are careful to note that while looking at photos of puppies, sunsets, and other positive imagery paired with images of our partners boosts positive feelings toward our partners, this classical conditioning will not make us have positive feelings towards someone we really dislike. In other words, classical conditioning is not a panacea for fixing badly damaged relationships. 

Consider using this experiment as another example in your classical conditioning lecture. Or provide students a summary of the research and ask them to work in pairs or small groups to identify the UCS, UCR, CS, and CR.  



Bushatz, A. (2017, April 28). Female troop divorce up slightly, male rate largely unchanged. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, January 13). Marriages and Divorces. Retrieved June 23, 2017, from

Improving marriages to decrease suicide risk. (n.d.). Retrieved June 23, 2017, from

Joiner, T. (2015, October). Military Suicide Research Consortium (Rep. No. W81XWH-10-2-0181). Retrieved

McNulty, J. K., Olson, M. A., Jones, R. E., & Acosta, L. M. (2017). Automatic associations between one’s partner and one’s affect as the proximal mechanism of change in relationship satisfaction: Evidence from evaluative conditioning. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797617702014

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.