The Interesting Story of the “Monkey Love Experiments”

You may not have not heard of the name Harry Harlow, but his psychological experiments with monkeys, often referred to as “Monkey Love Experiments” are well-known in the psychological community and have shaped the psychology of love as humans understand it. On the one hand, these experiments are quite simple, yet the findings from the studies continue to have an impact on cultures around the world.

What Harlow did is simple. He created two choices for infant monkeys that were clinically called “machines.” The infants were only separated from their mothers for a few hours to minimize the possibility of trauma. Each monkey was given a choice of two machines to nurse from. One was one made of wire mesh, the other wire mesh that had a terry cloth covering. No other differences in the two machines were created.

For most of us, we would say that naturally we would prefer the soft terry cloth choice all things being equal. But that raises the question of what would happen if the bare wire mesh machine was providing nourishment and the terry cloth version did not? The monkeys still preferred the terry cloth machine. So love, as we understand it, is more of a psychological response than an innate, natural response. In other words, we don’t love because we must, but love because we choose.

The next thing Harlow did was to take these monkeys and separate them into two groups. They had the choice of unlimited nourishment from both the hard wire and terry cloth machine. Regardless of which machine the monkeys chose, they were physically nourished and all grew up normally.

Then both groups were exposed to loud noises that startled them. Those that were being raised by the terry cloth group retreated to their terry cloth mother. Monkeys that chose the hard wire version did not, but screamed loudly, threw themselves on the floor, and did not retreat to their “mother.” In effect, they saw themselves with no place of emotional retreat. This is the same behavior often found in autistic children.

So the next question is, can reattaching the hard wire monkeys to their natural mother change the isolation behavior shown earlier? The simple answer is no. There is a time limit, a very short one, to develop this psychological attachment to the mother, otherwise the emotional damage is permanent. There is no hard and fast rule as every creation will adjust to the same conditions differently, but the Harlow experiments showed that after 8 months there was no turning back to mother for emotional attachment.

What does all this prove? In a real world outside of the laboratory, placing children in institutional settings instead of adoptive parent homes will only reinforce the hard wire mother disconnect. Mental health is a huge issue when it comes to political issues such as gun control. Yet both sides scream at each other instead of addressing this simple scientific reality. Just because someone has a mother or parents does not mean they have been provided the needed psychological love to make a maternal connection essential for mental health. The only ones who actually know are the parents.

On the positive side, we have at least a partial solution to many mental health issues: put orphan children in an emotionally nurturing environment as soon as possible. Harlow did the groundwork for this reality, and there is a wealth of other information that has been learned since these early experiments. Monkeys are not humans, so the adjustment period may actually be longer. What is clear is that failing to understand and take steps to create a loving and psychologically secure environment at an early age will only create more problems for society. The sooner we recognize there is a point of no return, the sooner we can act the prevent that point from being reached.


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