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Discovering Love by Harry Harlow

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Most psychologists agree that our experiences as an infant with closeness, touching, and attachment to our mother or primary caregiver have an important influence on our abilities to love and be close to others later in life. The Freudians believed that it was the focus around the importance of the breast and the instinctive oral tendencies during the first year of life which they consider to be the famous oral stage. Later, the behaviorists countered that notion with the view that all human behavior is associated with primary needs, such as hunger, thirst, and avoidance of pain. Since the mother can fill these needs, the infant’s closeness to her is constantly reinforced by the fact that she provides food for the infant. Consequently, the mother becomes associated with pleasurable events and, therefore, love develops. Love was seen as something secondary to other instinctive or survival needs. However, Harlow discovered that love and affection may be a primary need that is just as strong as or even stronger than those of hunger or thirst. However, Since Harlow had been working with rhesus monkeys for several years in his studies of learning; it was a simple process to begin his studies of love and attachment with these subjects. Harlow said that biologically, rhesus monkeys were very similar to humans.

Harlow also believed that the basic responses of the rhesus monkey relating to bonding and affection in infancy such as nursing, contact, clinging, etc. are the same as humans. So Harlow’s studies or theoretical proposition on Discovering Love was that, these infant monkeys were to be carefully raised by humans in the laboratory so that they could be bottle-fed better, receive well-balanced nutritional diets, and be protected from disease more effectively than if they were raised by their monkey mothers. Harlow noticed that these infant monkeys became very attached to the cloth pads that were used to cover the bottoms of their cages. They would cling to these pads and would become extremely angry and agitated when the pads were removed for cleaning. This attachment was seen in the baby monkeys as early as one day old and was even stronger over the monkeys’ first several months of life. Therefore, Harlow theorized that there must be some basic need in these infant monkeys for close contact with something soft and comforting in addition to primary biological needs such as hunger and thirst. Harlow’s method was to build a fake monkey mothers for the infant monkeys.

The first surrogate mother they built consisted of a smooth wooden body covered in sponge rubber and terry cloth. It was equipped with a breast in the chest area that delivered milk and contained a light bulb inside for warmth. They then constructed a different kind of surrogate mother that was less able to provide soft comfort. This mother was made of wire mesh shaped about the same as the wooden frame, so that an infant monkey could cling to it the same way as to the cloth mother. This wire mother also came equipped with a working nursing breast and also was able to provide heat. The wire mother was identical to the cloth mother in every way except for the ability to offer what Harlow called contact comfort. These manufactured mothers were then placed in separate cubicles that were attached to the infant monkeys’ living cage. Eight infant monkeys were randomly assigned to two groups. For one group, the cloth mother was equipped with the feeder to provide milk, and for the other group, the wire mother was the milk provider.

Each monkey had a turn with the cloth mother and the wire mother. The results were that all the monkeys, regardless of which mother had the milk, were spending nearly all their time each day on the cloth mother. Even those monkeys who were fed by the wire mother would only leave the comfort of the cloth mother to nurse briefly and then return to the cloth mother immediately. The two groups of monkeys that were raised with only a cloth or wire mother further demonstrated the importance of contact comfort. While both groups of these infants ate the same amount and gained weight at the same rate, the infants in the wire mother condition did not digest the milk as well and experienced diarrhea.

This suggests that the lack of the cloth mother was psychologically stressful to the infants. In the end Harlow points out, the studies reported in this article demonstrate the overwhelming importance of contact comfort in the development of attachment between infant monkeys and their mothers. The factor is that bonding appears to be considerably more important than the mother’s ability to provide milk to the infant. One of the many reasons this research changed psychology is that the findings went against the beliefs of the behaviorists at that time, which focused on the reinforcement qualities of feeding as the driving force behind the infant-mother bond. To some people Harlow discoveries changed the way people view the connection between infant and mother.

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