Harry Harlow was one of the first psychologists to scientifically investigate the nature of human love and affection. Through a series of controversial experiments, Harlow was able to demonstrate the importance of early attachments, affection, and emotional bonds on the course of healthy development.
During the first half of the 20th century, many psychologists believed that showing affection towards children was merely a sentimental gesture that served no real purpose.
According to many thinkers of the day, affection would only spread diseases and lead to adult psychological problems.
During this time, psychologists were motivated to prove their field as a rigorous science. The behaviourist movement dominated psychology and urged researchers to study only observable and measurable behaviours.
An American psychologist named Harry Harlow, however, became interested in studying a topic that was not so easy to quantify and measure—love.
Harlow’s experiments were often unethical and shockingly cruel, yet they uncovered fundamental truths that have heavily influenced our understanding of child development.
THE WIRE MOTHER EXPERIMENT
Many of the existing theories of love centered on the idea that the earliest attachment between a mother and child was merely a means for the child to obtain food, relieve thirst, and avoid pain. Harlow, however, believed that this behavioural view of mother-child attachments was an inadequate explanation.
Harlow’s most famous experiment involved giving young rhesus monkeys a choice between two different “mothers.” One was made of soft terrycloth but provided no food. The other was made of wire but provided nourishment from an attached baby bottle.
Harlow removed young monkeys from their natural mothers a few hours after birth and left them to be “raised” by these mother surrogates. The experiment demonstrated that the baby monkeys spent significantly more time with their cloth mother than with their wire mother. In other words, the infant monkeys went to the wire mother only for food but preferred to spend their time with the soft, comforting cloth mother when they were not eating.
“These data make it obvious that contact comfort is a variable of overwhelming importance in the development of affectional response, whereas lactation is a variable of negligible importance,” Harlow explained.
Harlow allowed the young monkeys to explore a room either in the presence of their surrogate mother or in her absence. Monkeys in the presence of their mother would use her as a secure base to explore the room.
When the surrogate mothers were removed from the room, the effects were dramatic. The young monkeys no longer had their secure base for exploration and would often freeze up, crouch, rock, scream, and cry.
Harlow’s work was controversial in his own time and continues to draw criticism today. While such experiments present major ethical dilemmas, his work helped inspire a shift in the way that we think about children and development and helped researchers better understand both the nature and importance of love.