How Harry Harlow's Research on Love Shaped How We Treat Children Today (2024)

Harry Harlow was one of the first psychologists to scientifically investigate the nature of human love and affection. Through a series of controversial monkey mother experiments, Harlow was able to demonstrate the importance of early attachments, affection, and emotional bonds in the course of healthy development.

This article discusses his famous monkey mother experiments and what the results revealed. It also explores why Harlow's monkey experiments are so unethical and controversial.

Early Research On Love

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.

"When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument," the behaviorist John B. Watson once even went so far as to warn parents.

Psychologists were motivated to prove their field as a rigorous science. The behaviorist movement dominated the field of psychology during this time. This approach urged researchers to study only observable and measurable behaviors.

An American psychologist named Harry Harlow, however, became interested in studying a topic that was not so easy to quantify and measure—love. In a series of controversial experiments conducted during the 1960s, Harlow demonstrated the powerful effects of love and in particular, the absence of love.

His work demonstrated the devastating effects of deprivation on young rhesus monkeys. Harlow's research revealed the importance of a caregiver's love for healthy childhood development.

Harlow's experiments were often unethical and shockingly cruel, yet they uncovered fundamental truths that have influenced our understanding of child development.

Harry Harlow's Research on Love

Harlow noted that very little attention had been devoted to the experimental research of love. At the time, most observations were largely philosophical and anecdotal.

"Because of the dearth of experimentation, theories about the fundamental nature of affection have evolved at the level of observation, intuition, and discerning guesswork, whether these have been proposed by psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, physicians, or psychoanalysts," he noted.

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 behavioral view of mother-child attachments was an inadequate explanation.

The Monkey Mother Experiment

His 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.

Based on these findings, Harry Harlow concluded that affection was the primary force behind the need for closeness.

Harry Harlow's Further Research

Later research demonstrated that young monkeys would also turn to their cloth surrogate mother for comfort and security. Such work revealed that affectionate bonds were critical for development.

Harlow utilized a"strange situation" technique similar to the one created by attachment researcher Mary Ainsworth. Young monkeys were allowed to explore a room either in the presence of their surrogate mother or in her absence.

Monkeys who were with their cloth 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 explorationand would often freeze up, crouch, rock, scream, and cry.

Harry Harlow’s experiments offered irrefutable proof that love is vital for normal childhood development. Additional experiments by Harlow revealed the long-term devastation caused by deprivation, leading to profound psychological and emotional distress and even death.

Impact of Harry Harlow’s Research

Harlow’s work, as well as important research by psychologists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, helped influence key changes in how orphanages, adoption agencies, social services groups, and childcare providers approached the care of children.

Harlow's work led to acclaim and generated a wealth of research on love, affection, and interpersonal relationships. However, his own personal life was marked by conflict.

After the terminal illness of his wife, he became engulfed by alcohol misuse and depression, eventually becoming estranged from his own children. Colleagues frequently described him as sarcastic, mean-spirited, misanthropic, chauvinistic, and cruel.

While he was treated for depression and eventually returned to work, his interests shifted following the death of his wife. He no longer focused on maternal attachment and instead developed an interest in depression and isolation.

Despite the turmoil that marked his later personal life, Harlow's enduring legacy reinforced the importance of emotional support, affection, and love in the development of children.

A Word From Verywell

Harry 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 importanceof love.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the significant finding of Harlow's experiments on monkeys?

    Harlow's research demonstrated the importance of love and affection, specifically contact comfort, for healthy childhood development. His research demonstrated that children become attached to caregivers that provide warmth and love, and that this love is not simply based on providing nourishment.

  • Why was the surrogate mother experiment unethical?

    Harlow's monkey mother experiment was unethical because of the treatment of the infant monkeys. The original monkey mother experiments were unnecessarily cruel. The infant monkeys were deprived of maternal care and social contact.

    In later experiments, Harlow kept monkeys in total isolation in what he himself dubbed a "pit of despair." While the experiments provided insight into the importance of comfort contact for early childhood development, the research was cruel and unethical.

How Harry Harlow's Research on Love Shaped How We Treat Children Today (2024)


How Harry Harlow's Research on Love Shaped How We Treat Children Today? ›

Harlow's research demonstrated the importance of love and affection, specifically contact comfort, for healthy childhood development. His research demonstrated that children become attached to caregivers that provide warmth and love, and that this love is not simply based on providing nourishment.

What did we learn from Harlow's experiment? ›

The Harlow attachment theory demonstrated the importance of social contact with the mother and peers for the proper social development of infant monkeys, and the developmental impairment that results from social isolation.

What were the results of Harlow's experiment with infants? ›

Additionally, Harlow's work also showed that infant monkeys looked for comfort in the fluffy surrogate mother, even if that surrogate mother never provided food. From this research, we can conclude that infants feel an attachment toward their caregiver. That attachment is experienced as what we know to be 'love.

What was the research question in Harlow's studies of infant attachment? ›

In the 1950's, psychologist Harry Harlow began a series of experiments on baby monkeys, depriving them of their biological mothers and using substitute wire and terry cloth covered “mothers”. Harlow's goal was to study the nature of attachment and how it affects monkeys who were deprived of their mothers early in life.

What are three main important findings from Harlow's research? ›

Final answer: Harlow's monkey experiment found that infant monkeys preferred the cloth surrogate for comfort over the wire mother that provided food, established the importance of comfort and security in attachment bonds, and introduced the concept of 'contact comfort' in attachment theory.

Why is Harry Harlow important? ›

Harry Frederick Harlow (October 31, 1905 – December 6, 1981) was an American psychologist best known for his maternal-separation, dependency needs, and social isolation experiments on rhesus monkeys, which manifested the importance of caregiving and companionship to social and cognitive development.

What did Harlow's experiment indicate humans have an innate need for more than what? ›

However, Harlow concluded that there was more to the mother-child bond than nourishment. Feelings of comfort and security are the critical components of maternal-infant bonding, which leads to healthy psychosocial development.

What did the Harlow experiment conclude as being the key to infant mother bonding? ›

The Harlow experiment concluded that physical contact and comfort, rather than food, were the key factors in the development of infant-mother bonding.

What is an important consequence of having a theory of mind? ›

An important consequence of having a theory of mind is that we think of ourselves as having mental as well as physical capacities. it allows us to predict how we might behave in various situations. it allows us to understand that others have intentions. it makes us more egocentric in our actions.

What needs does Harlow's research confirm babies have social as well as ______? ›

The Harlows's studies confirmed that babies have social as well as physical needs. Both monkeys and human babies need a secure base that allows them to feel safe.

What is one strength of Harlow's investigation of animal attachment? ›

Harry Harlow's monkey studies showed that infant monkeys preferred a soft, cloth surrogate mother over a wire surrogate mother that provided food. This suggested that attachment is not solely based on the satisfaction of physiological needs, but also on the need for comfort and contact comfort.

How can Harlow's research be used as a criticism of the learning theory of attachment? ›

This suggests that baby monkeys do not form attachments based on food, but actually prefer 'contact comfort'. This goes against the learning theory of attachment which suggests that children attach on the basis of an association forming between the mother and food.

What can we learn from Harlow's experiments with monkeys about the importance of the secure relationship? ›

Harlow separated macaque infants from their mothers at birth and raised them in isolation cages. He found that close, frequent attention from human carers led to higher survival rates than care by captive natural mothers and that the infant monkeys learned to come to their human carers for food and comfort.

What were the findings of Harlow's study on monkeys dependency summarized? ›

Harlow's first observation was that monkeys who had a choice of mothers spent far more time clinging to the terry cloth surrogates, even when their physical nourishment came from bottles mounted on the bare wire mothers. This suggested that infant love was no simple response to the satisfaction of physiological needs.

How Harlow's classic studies revealed the importance of maternal contact? ›

Harlow and other social and cognitive psychologists argued that this perspective overlooked the importance of comfort, companionship, and love in promoting healthy development. Using methods of isolation and maternal deprivation, Harlow showed the impact of contact comfort on primate development.

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