Monkey Science

In the 1950’s, Dr. Harry Harlow:

  • Advanced our understanding of mother-child relationships
  • Squashed the idea that babies primarily need their mothers for food
  • Revealed that babies most importantly need warmth and affection
  • Improved, with the help of his studies, child care services like foster care  and day care.

Yet, as a scientist, he is definitely more regarded as Dr. Evil than Doc Brown.


His methods were, to be nice, deplorable.  He created what he called the Pit of Despair. There he performed stomach wrenching experiments on monkeys, too gruesome to write about here. He snatched infant monkeys from their mothers and lead some into Hannibal Lecter territory. Almost none of these experiments can be done today without serious ethic violations nor should they be. Yet, the results of his studies are fascinating and still taught in Psychology 101.

In his most famous experiment, he set up cages with individual infant monkeys and two artificial mothers. One was a single nippled, empty hearted wire mother. She was cold to the touch but provided food with a milk bottle attached to her chest.  The other could have been the face of Downy. She didn’t provide food but was warm and cozy, made of cloth. Dr. Harlow wanted to find out, “What did babies need more from their mothers – food or comfort?”


Well, the monkeys only went to the wired mother when they were hungry. They loved their cloth mothers so much that they spent up to 22 hours per day clinging to them.


Dr.Harry Harlow became more curious.  What if the monkeys were threatened? Would they rather feed or cling? So the doctor built a spooky robot and released it into the monkey cages.


Okay, it doesn’t seem too spooky, but the poor monkeys saw it and went ape shi@#.


They ran to their cloth mother and hung for dear life.

Dr. Harlow concluded that primates need early attachment. There is some instinctive need to cling to another body, soft and warm.

Here is the crazy part. Dr. Harlow left some infant monkeys alone with only the wire mothers and the monkeys went psychotic! This is from Yale’s Professor Paul Bloom:

They were withdrawn. They didn’t play. They bit themselves. They were incompetent socially and sexually. They were incompetent maternally. In one case, one of these monkeys raised in solitary confinement was artificially inseminated. When she had a child she banged its head on the floor and then bit it to death.

Of course psychologists have never done anything like this to humans so we can’t automatically make the connection.  But situations arise that present themselves as natural experiments. For example, harsh orphanages exist where children are fed regularly but don’t have social contact or are hardly picked up and cuddled. These children, if this happens for long enough, end up with severe problems with social and emotional development.

I’ll end with some good news. If you get to these children early enough, the effects can be reversed. There was one experiment, according to Professor Bloom, where toddlers were taken away from a nasty orphanage and brought into a home for mentally challenged women.  The women gave the kids plenty of contact and cuddling and brought them back to normal!


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