Harlows monkey infant experiment

Harry Harlow (1905-81) was an American comparative psychologist who made his mark by studying mother love in monkeys. In 1930, Harlow joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, where he established the Psychology Primate Laboratory. At the time, it was widely believed that humans and other social animals lived in organized groups mainly for the purpose of regular sexual contact. Harlow had a different idea: that mother love and social ties might also be important.

In 1957, Harlow began working with rhesus monkeys, which are more mature at birth than human infants, but which nonetheless are similar in development. In a series of landmark studies, Harlow separated young rhesus monkeys from their natural mothers, giving them instead two artificial substitutes: one made of wire, and the other made of cloth. Even when the wire "mother" was outfitted with a bottle for feeding, the infant monkeys showed a clear preference for cuddling with the softer cloth "mother," especially when they were scared. In related studies, Harlow showed that monkeys who were deprived of maternal contact and comfort as infants grew up to be poor mothers themselves.

Harlow also showed that young monkeys who were raised with real mothers and young peers naturally learned to play and get along with other monkeys. Those that were raised with real mothers but no young playmates were often fearful or inappropriately aggressive, while those raised without either real mothers or peers were socially inept and often unsuccessful at mating as adults. Taken as a whole, Harlow concluded that his studies showed that society was not based on sex alone. He also found that mother love by itself was not enough to help a youngster grow up to be socially competent. Instead, normal parenting and mating behavior as adults depended on both healthy maternal and peer contacts early in life.

Harry Harlow
Harry Harlow holding a rhesus monkey. (UW Harlow Primate Laboratory—The University of Wisconsin. Reproduced by permission.)

center that bears his name, Savage-Rumbaugh and her colleagues have dubbed the lexigram language "Yerkish."

Relevance to modern readers Nonhuman primates are humans' closest relatives in the animal world. As a result, they share many characteristics with humans, including complex communication systems, long-lasting social relationships, and the use of tools. Studying the psychology of nonhuman primates can teach people about their own psychological nature (see accompanying sidebar).

Humans and nonhuman primates also share a similar physiology. By studying the brains of monkeys and apes, researchers have gained insight into how the human brain works. In addition, primate research has been crucial to understanding biological processes, such as reproduction, and medical conditions, such as AIDS and addiction. Over the years, primates have also been used in Nobel Prize-winning research; some of these studies have resulted in a yellow fever vaccine (1951), a polio vaccine (1954), and key discoveries about visual processing in the brain (1981).

One continuing concern is the ethical treatment of animals used for research purposes. Several safeguards have been put in place to help prevent abuses, however. Four federal government agencies—the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Public Health Service, the National Research Council, and the Food and Drug Administration—regulate different aspects of animal research. In addition, the APA has issued its own Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in the Care and Use of Animals. According to these guidelines, "psychologists should conduct their teaching and research in a manner consonant with relevant laws and regulations. In addition, ethical concerns mandate that psychologists should consider the costs and benefits of procedures involving animals before proceeding with the research."

When these high standards are met, primate research can be of great benefit to both psychology and society at large. No single individual has had a greater impact on primate research in the United States than Yerkes. It is fitting that his namesake laboratory continues to carry on the work that was dearest to his heart. In an autobiographical essay written around the same time that his primate lab opened, Yerkes wrote:

It is as if I am now on the threshold of a great undertaking which from the first was dimly envisaged and later planned for with increasing definite-ness and assurance . . . It promises the fulfillment of my persistent dream for the progress of comparative psychology and the enhancement of its values to mankind through the wise utilization of anthropoid apes and other primates as subjects of experimental inquiry.

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