Harry F. Harlow is best known for his studies of mother love and the importance of social interaction in primate learning. He was born in Fairview, Iowa, in 1905. He received his BA and PhD in psychology from Stanford University and immediately joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, where he established the Psychology Primate Laboratory. It expanded and merged with the Wisconsin Regional Primate Laboratory in 1964, with Harlow as its director. The Wisconsin Primate Center drew in several leading scientists, including humanistic psychologist Abraham Maslow.
Harlow questioned current theories, which stated that love was a function of the feeding bond between mothers and a means of regularizing sexual contact. To examine the significance of mothering and the universal need for contact, Harlow studied baby rhesus monkeys, because they demonstrated a range of emotions similar to human babies and needed to be nursed. In his famous “wire mother study,” Harlow took infant monkeys away from their biological mothers and assigned them to two wire surrogate mothers. One model was made entirely out of chicken wire and had a bottle with a nipple that could feed the baby monkeys. It also had an electric light for warmth. The other model was made of soft cloth but did not have a light or a bottle. Harlow observed that the babies rarely stayed with the wire model any longer than it took for them to feed, but they cuddled with the softer cloth model, especially if they were frightened. When Harlow outfitted the cloth model with the bottle of food, the baby rhesus refused to go to the wire model at all. Harlow also observed that in times of fear, it appeared that the cuddling between “mother” and baby was stronger than the physical drive to feed or the need for warmth. Baby monkeys would cling to the cloth mother for days instead of eating if a fear stimulus was added to the cage. Harlow concluded that cuddling with the cloth model provided the babies with a sense of safety and security that was more important to them than the feeding bond.
Harlow’s studies also found that young monkeys reared with live mothers and young peers learned social skills faster than those reared with cloth mothers, although they appeared to catch up socially in about a year. Harlow also found that babies raised by biological mothers but with no playmates were socially incompetent, demonstrating fear or aggression toward other young monkeys. This also affected their ability to mate successfully. In addition, females who did not develop social competency and who had babies were very neglectful of them. They did not seem to know how to create secure attachments with them. From these studies, Harlow concluded that sex alone did not organize societies. He also concluded that mother love was not sufficient to enable individual social relations. And Harlow argued that although children need love and affection from a caregiver, early childhood social development is dependent on a wide range of emotional ties with both family and peers.
Harlow’s provocative theories regarding normal sexual and parental behavior furthered the scientific study of love. His empirical research made significant contributions toward understanding general and child behavioral development in the areas of learning, motivation, and affection. His work contributed to the field of anthropology because he showed that humans can learn strategies from one another to solve problems, contributing to their ability to adapt to a wide range of stimuli.
Dr. Harry Harlow died in 1981. He served as President of the American Psychological Association, 1958 to 1959. He earned the National Medal of Science in 1967 and the Annual Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Sex in 1972. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Arts and Sciences.
- Blum, D. (2002). Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the science of affection. Cambridge, MA: Perseus.
- Harlow, H. (1958). Biological and biochemical bases of behavior. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
- Harlow, H. (1979). The human model: Primate perspectives. New York: Wiley.