Harry Harlow

Harry Harlow (1905-1981) conducted a series of experiments in 1958 with infant rhesus monkeys and a set of “surrogate mothers.” Two main types of “mothers” were used:
1) a wire model containing a bottle to feed the monkey and 2) a terry-cloth model.
Despite the fact that the baby monkeys only received food from the wire mother, all of the monkeys spent more time clinging to and cuddling with the cloth mother- especially when they were frightened (Harlow, H., 1970).  This disproved the prominent theory known as the “cupboard theory” in which it was believed that infants only had an attachment to their mothers because they were the source of food, thus associating the mother with positive feelings. Because of the baby rhesus monkeys’ attachment to the cloth mothers, this led researchers to conclude that attachment and the need for affection was deeper than the need for food (Schultheis, E., 1999).

a video of Harry Harlow’s experiment with rhesus monkeys


 How does this apply today?

Harlow’s research supported the importance of bonding between the mother/caregiver and the child. Baby monkeys who were not shown affection or could not cuddle with the cloth mother had trouble gaining weight thus leading reserachers to believe that affection has a large impact on a child’s development. This not only led to important parenting tips, but also expanded to the caring of children in orphanages and hospitals where workers were encouraged to interact and have more physical contact with young children (Schultheis, E., 1999).

Another example of care that we can associate with Harlows’s study is the development of kangaroo care: in premature births, mothers are encouraged to have as much skin-to-skin contact with their baby as possible by placing it on their bare chest and covering them with a blanket- this has been shown to greatly increase the health of the infant.


For more information…
Check out one of Harry Harlow’s original articles on his experiment with rheus monkeys, published in 1970:  Nature of love: Simplified.  American Psychologist, 25, 161-168.  doi:  10.1037/h0029383



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