How Not to Treat Babies

monkey-caged-animal-research-deprivation-lab-testing-imageDepriving babies of mother-love might seem necessarily a harmful thing to do, but according to the experimental psychologists who were interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 programme Mind Changers, parents in the mid-twentieth century didn’t take that view. They had apparently been trusting B.F.Skinner and his behaviourist psychology, which taught that the mother’s free expression of her natural affection would tend to spoil the children. It would train them to expect gratifications which the world would later deny them.

Then Professor Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed, in a series of experiments on rhesus monkeys, that babies didn’t only need their mothers for the milk; they needed physical affection and reassurance too. When the mothers of these monkeys were taken (permanently) from them, and they were provided instead with a choice of two perfunctory surrogates made of wire, they chose to cling to the one that promised emotional warmth, the one with a hank of terrycloth on it. However repellently it was made to behave towards them, they clung to it in preference to the milk-bearing model without any cloth on it at all. Later, with this crippled up-bringing behind them, the monkeys would unsurprisingly prove incapable of proper motherhood themselves.

According to Mind Changers, Harlow’s research “revolutionised parenting”.[1] Suddenly we discovered that, for infants, “contact comfort was crucially important”. The suggestion was that it’s Harry Harlow whom the under-60s have to thank for whatever affection they got in their infancy. But it has to be remembered that what Harlow showed was only that maternal affection was necessary to baby rhesus monkeys. If we are easily convinced that this finding translates to humans, it’s probably because we were already perfectly confident that it’s true of them too.

Besides, hadn’t Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian ethologist, shown back in the 1930s what motherhood and infant attachment meant: that is, that love of mother was not just cupboard love (not even cupboard love in some cases when the infant “imprinted” on a parent of the wrong species)? Mind Changers did mention Lorenz, as it did also mention the important clinical work of the psychiatrist John Bowlby. However, it said nothing of the paediatrician Benjamin Spock. Yet parents of the 1950s who had never heard of Skinner, Harlow, or Bowlby would have known of Dr Spock, or if not, were almost certainly following his advice unawares. His best-selling Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946, but still in print) famously begins with the words “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” In other words, you didn’t need Professor Harlow to tell you that the affection you felt for your offspring was a prompt in nature that you should act upon, still less Professor Skinner to tell you that it wasn’t. Spock was so widely read and followed that he was later blamed for all the delinquencies of the post-war generations: their distrust of authority, sexual permissiveness, political dissent, etc. Nobody, I think, blamed Harlow, and with good reason.

The BBC’s publicity for this programme refers to “the perceived cruelty of Harlow’s work”. One or two of the academics interviewed certainly did perceive it; others didn’t, or didn’t say so. Is the cruelty, then, just a matter of opinion, as the word ‘perceived’ seems intended to imply? Certainly acute distress was deliberately caused to babies and mothers, the most acute distress that can befall mammals; the traumatic character of such experiences was a premise of the research, and essential to what it claimed to teach. A ruthless programme of violence, then, wrong by any standards known outside the laboratory. But the term ‘cruelty’ implies that the harm is caused recklessly, even with relish. We would have to know that Harlow made jokes about his monkeys in their wretchedness (he did), or that his students inherited that sort of jocular response to the research (they did). We might ask if he himself acknowledged any element of cruelty in the work (he did: “We began as sadists trying to produce abnormality.”) We might ask if the experiments showed more than the strictly necessary contempt for the welfare of the monkeys: Mind Changers showed that they did. In short, Harry Harlow’s experiments were indeed knowingly and shamefully cruel.

Worse, those experiments have corrupted whoever has been induced to admire them. I recall that my ‘O’ level biology book made a feature of them, teaching children to think that science trumped kindness and decency. Likewise, a standard introductory work of the 1960s, The Science of Animal Behaviour (Penguin Books, 1964), had on its cover the famous photograph of a baby monkey making its pathetic choice of the terrycloth mother in Harlow’s laboratory – as if to say, this is our science at its most impressive. The same picture was mentioned in Mind Changers: “I really like this photo”, said the presenter. In such ways is inhumanity handed on.

I hope that this radio series will include, among its “classic psychology experiments” in future, Stanley Milgram’s ‘electric shock’ studies at Yale in the 1960s (already treated briefly in a sister-series on Radio 4, All in the Mind). Those famous experiments tended to show that lay-people can allow their native decency and compassion to be over-ridden by the prestige of an experimental scientist at work. But Milgram’s subjects were caught out in a momentary crisis, with no time to think. We have had sixty years to ponder Harry Harlow’s experiments. It’s time to stop celebrating them, and to agree that they dishonoured his profession and his species.


[1]  Except where otherwise stated, quotations are from Mind Changers: Harlow’s Monkeys, first broadcast in 2009, and broadcast as a repeat on Radio 4 Extra, 10 July 2015.