Inspired: Harlow’s Monkeys

10 March 2016

Sometimes provocative and always interesting, this series of shorter stories can be inspired by pretty much anything in Wellcome Collection and offers a quick insight into some of the themes we explore. This one comes from Rock Webb.

I’m inspired by the reincarnated Reading Room that opened just over a year ago. I love the different niches and various lounge areas, notably the space where we have a publication rack containing all manner of magazines, journals and periodicals. I am drawn to one in particular: issue 55 of Cabinet, a “quarterly of art and culture”. On the cover of this “Love” edition is a striking image of a baby rhesus macaque cuddling an artificial mother.

Harry Harlow was a psychologist who conducted research in the 1950s into the nature of the relationship between infant and parent, with a particular focus on the effects of isolation and maternal deprivation. Noticing that the laboratory hand-reared baby monkeys became stressed when their cage blankets were removed for washing, he could see they were attached to their blanket. To Harlow, this appeared to show an inconsistency with the benchmark theory at that time: Sigmund Freud’s “nourishment-association” notion of attachment.

Freud was a leading voice when it came to theories of human development and attachment. He believed that infants attach to their mothers through a fundamental need to receive nourishment, i.e as food repositories. He argued that the fear of going unfed was the driving force behind infants forming attachment. Freud essentially strips human social development back to basic biology. However, the reality is that infant/carer attachment appears to be far more complex than Freud appreciated. For instance, infants will not only attach to their food providers, but will also bond with others. In addition, young children enjoy non-food associated socialisation.


Questioning Freud, Harlow set out to test this through a series of experiments. In his first, infant monkeys were reared by two different artificial mothers: a wire model; and one covered in soft material (like the cage blankets). To see if they attached to their wire mother because of their need to receive nourishment, he attached feeding bottles to only half the models. It was soon clear that all the monkeys became remarkably attached to the soft material models, whether they held a bottle or not. They would only go to the wire mother to feed, but immediately returned to their cloth mother afterwards. Harlow, and subsequent others, interpreted this as evidence that comfort is preferred over food.

Children often seek comfort from an adult when anxious or distressed. We all have a need to feel loved and a sense of protection. Harlow continued to experiment. A variation saw the monkeys deliberately upset and when the cloth mother was removed from the cage, the babies showed signs of distress. In contrast, they seemed unbothered by the removal of the wire mother.

Harlow then put the monkeys through a “strange room” trial. With the cloth mother also in the room they would go off and investigate, returning to her every now and then. Yet without a mother present, the monkeys just huddled together and appeared frightened. When they were alarmed by a drum-beating marching teddy bear, they would rush and cling to their cloth mother. These results informed Harlow that separation distress we see in infants has very little to do with the fear of going unfed.

Even though Harlow’s methods were highly criticised and arguably cruel, his findings have left us with much to consider and have helped to form later concepts concerning developmental behaviours.

Rock is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.