Best Valentine’s Day Gift Idea, According to Science

Hint: It's not chocolate or flowers!

Posted Feb 07, 2019

Valentine’s Day is just around the corner, and you’re wondering what to get that special someone in your life. Well, look no further, because my recently published scientific research points to one specific type of gift that could indirectly reduce sexual infidelity and increase the longevity and quality of your romantic relationship!

 Shutterstock
70% of people admit to cheating (Wiederman & Hurd, 1999); if you've done it once, you're 3 times more likely to do it again (Knopp et al., 2017).
Source: Shutterstock

Sexual infidelity can lead to psychological distress for both parties involved (Cano & O’Leary, 2000), and it tends to be among the most common reasons for breakups and divorce (e.g., Johnson et al., 2002; Amato & Previti, 2003). According to some estimates, up to 70 percent of people admit to cheating on at least one romantic partner throughout the course of their lives (Wiederman & Hurd, 1999).

The news gets even worse: If your partner has cheated in the past, a recent study suggests that they are three times more likely to cheat again in the future (Knopp, Scott, Ritchie, Rhoades, Markman, & Stanley, 2017). Needless to say, if you are trying to maintain a loving relationship with your significant other, cheating is something you’ll want to avoid.  

Past empirical work suggests that there are many factors that can lead to sexual infidelity, including having an unsatisfying sex life (Mark, Janssen, & Milhausen, 2011), and being exposed to social norms that are more approving of cheaters (Buunk, Bakker, & Taylor, 1995). More recently, research has pointed to one’s sociosexuality (the degree to which one holds unrestricted attitudes towards having sex) as a major factor in cheating behavior; the more psychologically permissive people are towards casual sex, the more they tend to cheat (Rodrigues, Lopes, & Pereira, 2017).

Putting it all together, if there were a gift that could lead to a measurable reduction in your partner’s sociosexuality, then this might indirectly reduce their likelihood of sexual infidelity, significantly improving the quality and longevity of your romantic relationship. Well, recent scientific research suggests that there may be such a gift . . . let’s just hope you’re not allergic.

 Steve Wainright, used with permission
Being in the presence of puppies, kittens, & other cute vulnerable animals activates a parental caregiving mindset (Sherman et al., 2009).
Source: Steve Wainright, used with permission

Puppies, kittens, and other cute animals elicit emotional experiences of warmth, sympathy, and tenderness; this, in turn, triggers a parental caring-giving motivation in humans (Sherman et al., 2009). Indeed, being in the presence of vulnerable animals activates many of the same physiological and psychological mechanisms involved in human parenting behavior (e.g., oxytocin release, Odendaal & Meintjes 2003; increased carefulness, Sherman et al., 2009).

Here’s where it gets interesting. According to evolutionary theory, physiological and psychological mechanisms facilitating parenting behavior utilize the same limited bioenergetic resources as those facilitating short-term mating behavior (Del Giudice, Gangestad, & Kaplan, 2016). Therefore, when the parental caring motivational system is activated, evolutionary theory suggests a subsequent reduction in short-term mating motivation; this fundamental tension is referred to as the mating/parenting trade-off (Trivers, 1972).

Being in the presence of puppies, kittens, and other cute vulnerable animals activates a parental mindset (e.g., Sherman et al., 2009), so according to the mating/parenting trade-off, it should also lead to a subsequent reduction in short-term mating motivation (i.e., sociosexuality). In a recent set of experiments, my colleague and I set out to test this hypothesis (Beall & Schaller, 2019).

Ninety-two undergraduate participants at the University of British Columbia were presented with a set of ten photographs, each of which was accompanied by a brief caption. These stimuli differed across two experimental conditions (See image below). Participants in the "Abandoned Pets" condition were presented with photographs depicting cute puppies and kittens accompanied by captions suggesting that the animal was in need of nurturant care (e.g., “Found abandoned”; “Brown dog needs a home”). Participants in the control condition (the "Abandoned Furniture" condition) were presented with photographs depicting pieces of household furniture accompanied by a caption that was either identical (e.g., “Found abandoned”) or analogous (e.g., “Brown couch needs a home”) to the captions that were used in the Abandoned Pets condition. 

Alec Beall (UBC Social Cognition Lab)
Participants who viewed images of baby animals (left panel) consequently reported significantly lower sociosexuality.(i.e., permissive attitudes towards casual sex) than participants who viewed control images of furniture (right panel).
Source: Alec Beall (UBC Social Cognition Lab)

Immediately following the manipulation, participants completed 20 items from the revised Sociosexual Orientation Inventory (SOI, Jackson & Kirkpatrick, 2007). This questionnaire is widely used in relationship science to capture one’s advocacy for an unrestricted sexual style (i.e., sociosexuality); it asks participants to indicate their level of agreement with statements such as: “I believe in taking sexual opportunities when I find them,” and “Sex without love is OK.”

The results of our investigation showed that, compared to participants in a control condition, those who had been presented with photographs of puppies and kittens consequently reported lower levels of sociosexuality. Indeed, the visual presentation of cute, vulnerable, baby animals reduced permissive attitudes towards casual sex and decreased participants’ orientation towards an unrestricted short-term mating style.

To summarize, higher sociosexuality is a major predictor of cheating behavior and subsequent breakups (Rodrigues, Lopes, & Pereira, 2017; Johnson et al., 2002), but my recently published research suggests that this propensity is reduced in the presence of cute baby animals (Beall & Schaller, 2019).

 foxie913/fanpop
Getting your partner a baby animal for Valentine's Day could reduce permissive attitudes toward sexual infidelity (see Beall & Schaller, 2019); potentially increasing the longevity and quality of your relationship.
Source: foxie913/fanpop

If you’re looking for a Valentine’s Day gift with the potential to increase the quality and longevity of your romantic relationship, consider getting your partner a puppy, kitten, or some other cute, cuddly critter. Going one step further, hypothetically any vulnerable thing that requires your partner’s nurturance, protection, and care has the potential to activate their parental caring mindset; so, if baby animals aren’t an option, a needy houseplant might just do the trick!

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Facebook image: Bobex-73/Shutterstock

References

Amato P.R., Previti D. (2003). People’s reasons for divorcing: Gender, social class, the life course, and adjustment. Journal of Family Issues 24(5):602–26.

Beall, A. T., & Schaller, M. (2019). Evolution, motivation, and the mating/parenting trade-off. Self and Identity, 18, 39-59.

Buunk BP, Bakker AB, Taylor P. (1995). Extradyadic sex: The role of descriptive and injunctive norms.  Journal of Sex Research 32(4):313–18.

Cano A, O’Leary KD. (2000). Infidelity and separations precipitate major depressive episodes and symptoms of nonspecific depression and anxiety. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 68(5): 774–81

Del Giudice, M., Gangestad, S. W., & Kaplan, H. S. (2016). Life history theory and evolutionary psychology. In D. M. Buss (Ed.), The handbook of evolutionary psychology (2nd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Jackson, J. J., & Kirkpatrick, L. (2007). The structure and measurement of human mating strategies: Toward a multidimensional model of sociosexuality. Evolution and Human Behavior, 28, 382–391.

Johnson, C.A., Stanley, S.M., Glenn, N.D., Amato, P.R., Nock, S.L., Markman, H.J., Dion, M.R. (2002) Marriage in Oklahoma: 2001 baseline statewide survey on marriage and divorce (S02096 OKDHS). Oklahoma City, OK: Oklahoma Department of Human Services.

Knopp, K., Scott, S., Ritchie, L., Rhoades, G. K., Markman, H. J., & Stanley, S. M. (2017). Once a cheater, always a cheater? Serial infidelity across subsequent relationships. Archives of sexual behavior, 46(8), 2301-2311.

Mark K.P, Janssen E., Milhausen R.R. (2011). Infidelity in heterosexual couples: Demographic, interpersonal, and personality-related predictors of extradyadic sex. Archives of Sexual Behavior 40(5): 971–82.

Odendaal, J. and Meintjes, R. (2003). Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs. The Veterinary Journal 165: 296–301.

Sherman, G. D., Haidt, J., & Coan, J. A. (2009). Viewing cute images increases behavioral carefulness. Emotion, 9, 282-286.

Trivers, R. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. Sexual Selection & the Descent of Man, Aldine de Gruyter, New York, 136-179.

Rodrigues, D., Lopes, D., & Pereira, M. (2017). Sociosexuality, commitment, sexual infidelity, and perceptions of infidelity: data from the second love web site. The Journal of Sex Research, 54(2), 241-253.

Wiederman M.W., Hurd C. (1999). Extradyadic involvement during dating. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 16(2):265–74.

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