Harlow’s Rhesus Monkeys’ Mother’s Day

Moms are great. They provide warmth, love, meatloaf, affection, chocolate pudding pie, rides to the movies, and so much more. Those who are deprived of such relationships at a young age are significantly more likely to have trust and other social/emotional issues as an adult, and are also more likely to have poor relationships with their own children.

The connection between a child and his or her primary caretaker can be of the upmost importance. Simply put, moms set the foundation for our future attachment bonds, leading to an emotional tie we call love.

Today, researchers regard this emotional bond as one of the critical elements of healthy development. Simply put, early affection is important for developing into a healthy adult.

One of the most influential researchers to demonstrate this notion was an American psychologist named Harry Harlow. In the 50s and 60s, Harlow conducted a number of animal experiments to demonstrate the desire for warmth and affection above and beyond the providing of food.

In his experiments, monkeys separated from their mothers at birth were ‘raised’ by two puppet surrogates (see pictures below). One was made of wire (the beauty on the left) and provided food to the furry participant. The other surrogate did not provide food, but was covered by a soft, comfortable cloth (the one on the right, below). - Different Psychology

The experiment simply tested which surrogate mother the monkeys would prefer – one that provided food or one that provided comfort. The punch line was this: Monkeys certainly went to the wire mother for food. Otherwise, they spent the overwhelming majority of their time with the cloth mother.

When hanging out, the monkey hung out on the cloth mother. When chillin, the monkey chilled on the cloth mother. When interested in laying down on something soft instead of steely wire, it preferred the cloth mother. And when scared, it went to the cloth mother.

According to Harlow, “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.”

Perhaps it seems obvious today, but these experiments provided some of the first evidence that normal child development is incredibly dependent on parental love and affection. You can have all the money in the world and shower your children in gifts, but all of that will mean very little without actually being there.

When all goes well… we are indebted to moms for selflessly providing warmth, comfort, and a solid foundation for the rest of our lives. It’s as though we should dedicate an entire day to them each year, perhaps giving flowers, gifts, and thanks for being our real-life, cloth-covered monkey. Happy Mother’s Day!

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About the Author

has a Ph.D. in Psychology and enjoys writing in the third person.

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