Harry Harlow and his monkeys: being cruel to be kind?
While researching my recent series on questioning authority, I got the idea to write a post about the seminal Milgram experiments on obedience to authority.
But while researching that post just now, I got sidetracked. This happens quite a bit with me, a phenomenon I like to think of as blogger ADD, or BADD.
So now I'm writing about Harry Harlow and his monkeys, and Milgram will follow in due time.
Why Harlow? A fascinating and troubling character, ethically controversial but well-designed research, and results that helped transform the advice given to parents on child-rearing.
When I was a psych major back in college, part of our learning experience involved--as you might expect--studying psychology experiments. Many were of the so-called "rat psych" variety, and some were of a more clinical nature. Then much later, while getting my clinical Master's in the early 90s, I had to read many more. In between, I actually worked as a social science researcher in a place with a sterling reputation. So I've done my time--and more--in the field of psychological research, including being a subject back in college (I remember interminable sessions with what was known as a "memory drum." Bloody boring.).
But I must admit (or is it confess?) that too much social science research is "garbage in, garbage out." Not all of course, but quite a bit. Some of this is the fault of sloppy methodology. But most of the problem may be inherent in the nature of the beast of social science research itself: too many variables to control for, too many unknowns.
But even social science has some experiments so very wonderfully done, and with such fascinating results, that they not only impressed me when I first encountered them, but they stayed with me and inform me still.
One was the famous "learned helplessness" research, in which dogs who received painful electric shocks without the possibility of escape learned that their efforts to avoid the pain were futile. Later, when they received shocks in a situation in which they were able to escape, they didn't even try. Another was the perhaps even more famous case of the Harlow monkeys. Still another, of course, was Milgram's research on obedience to authority.
The first two involved cruelty to animals in those pre-PETA days. The third involved feigned physical cruelty (and, some would argue, actual psychological cruelty) to humans. I'm no PETA member, but I've seen the visuals on Harlow's monkeys and the shocked dogs--both the films and the still photos--and they are disturbing to watch.
Harlow's research wasn't limited to the esoteric halls of academe; his surrogate-mother monkeys became well-known through a feature in Life magazine in the 50s, where I first encountered them as a young child.
There was something haunting about those photos. I could hardly take my eyes away from the mournful expressions of the baby monkeys Harlow had taken away from their mothers and raised with two "surrogate mothers"--a wire one with a bottle attached, where the baby could get its nourishment, and a cloth one the baby could cling to for comfort (see photo that begins this essay).
And cling they did:
Before Harlow, many psychologists thought that the mother/infant bond was based on the nourishment provided. Harlow theorized that touch and comfort were even more crucial--if not in keeping the infant alive, then in keeping it emotionally healthy. This may seem self-evident today, but at the time it was revolutionary.
Harlow's experiments exemplify the paradoxical nature of research that subjects animals to some sort of cruelty and yet yields results that can benefit humans.
Here's a description of what actually happened to Harlow's monkeys:
When the experimental subjects were frightened by strange, loud objects, such as teddy bears beating drums, monkeys raised by terry cloth surrogates made bodily contact with their mothers, rubbed against them, and eventually calmed down. Harlow theorized that they used their mothers as a “psychological base of operations,” allowing them to remain playful and inquisitive after the initial fright had subsided. In contrast, monkeys raised by wire mesh surrogates did not retreat to their mothers when scared. Instead, they threw themselves on the floor, clutched themselves, rocked back and forth, and screamed in terror...
In subsequent experiments, Harlow’s monkeys proved that “better late than never” was not a slogan applicable to attachment. When Harlow placed his subjects in total isolation for the first eights months of life, denying them contact with other infants or with either type of surrogate mother, they were permanently damaged. Harlow and his colleagues repeated these experiments, subjecting infant monkeys to varied periods of motherlessness. They concluded that the impact of early maternal deprivation could be reversed in monkeys only if it had lasted less than 90 days, and estimated that the equivalent for humans was six months. After these critical periods, no amount of exposure to mothers or peers could alter the monkeys’ abnormal behaviors and make up for the emotional damage that had already occurred. When emotional bonds were first established was the key to whether they could be established at all.
But the story is actually worse than that. It turns out that even the contact comfort of a cloth surrogate mother was not enough to raise a healthy monkey. All of Harlow's monkeys had severe disruptions when they grew up--for example, they could not mate.
You might ask: what's the point? Isn't this stuff obvious? Who needed an experiment to prove it? But that's 20/20 hindsight; at the time, Harlow's results sent shockwaves through the psychology community:
What may seem obvious to us now...was as counter to the conventional wisdom in psychology in those days as Galileo's ideas were to the astronomy in his day...The field was dominated by the behaviorist theories of psychologists like B. F. Skinner and child development theories exemplified by John Watson, who used his presidency of the American Psychological Association to conduct a personal crusade against cuddling children.
Harlow's carefully executed and presented research sent shockwaves through the psychology community, eventually discrediting behaviorism and many other -isms under the extraordinary force of the information he collected. His voluminous hard data replaced what previously had been anecdotal evidence in fledgling schools of thought, providing a much-needed scientific basis for theories like attachment theory, humanistic psychology (Abraham Maslow was his first graduate student), and patient-centered therapy.
And what of Harlow himself? According to this Boston Globe profile, he was a troubled and contentious man. His life included two broken marriages, alcoholism, and depression (did he, perhaps, have only a cloth mother, too?)
Harlow didn't even like monkeys--or animals--at all, which undoubtedly made it easier for him to conduct his research:
Harlow felt no kinship with his test subjects. "The only thing I care about is whether a monkey will turn out a property I can publish," he said. "I don't have any love for them. I never have. I don't really like animals. I despise cats. I hate dogs. How could you love monkeys?"
Harlow fired off some excellent bon mots, including this one:
[Harlow] was at a conference one day, and every time he used the word "love" another scientist would interrupt and say, "You must mean proximity, don't you?" until at last Harlow, a brash man who could also be strangely shy, said, "It may be that proximity is all you know of love -- I thank God I have not been so deprived."
But one wonders. If the original experiments were dark, later ones (after his divorces and electroshock treatments for depression) grew far darker, and entered the realm of sadism. I'm not using this word lightly; see whether you agree with me:
[Harlow] built a black isolation chamber in which an animal was hung upside down for up to two years, unable to move or see the world, fed through a grid at the bottom of the V-shaped device. This Harlow called "the well of despair." Indeed, it was successful in creating a primate model of mental illness. The animals, once removed, after months or years, were shattered and psychotic. Nothing Harlow did could bring them back. There appeared to be no cure. No way to contact, to comfort.
Harlow's earlier research was somewhat cruel, but it had a clear purpose and results that could be used to the benefit of humans. This later research (performed during the 60s) almost undoubtedly would not have been allowed today, whatever his previous reputation. It amounted to the torture of highly intelligent and sensitive animals, to no real purpose.
To me, it's a case of balance. Harlow's early experiments had elements of cruelty, but even before the experiments were performed it was clear that they could have some beneficial results for child-rearing (which have ultimately come to include advances in the treatment of premature and institutionalized infants, and the resurgence of breastfeeding). Furthermore, with those early experiments, the extent of the resultant disturbances to the monkeys' psyches was unforeseen and unexpected.
Harlow's latter experiments, however, seemed to have no redeeming social importance. The horrific results on the monkeys' psyches seem not only predictable, but inevitable, and it's virtually impossible to see how even the feisty Harlow could have argued, prospectively, of any real benefit to our knowledge of human nature likely to result from them.
In certain cases it may indeed be necessary to be cruel to animals in order to be kinder to humans. But Harlow's trajectory is a cautionary tale of the necessity to calibrate the two.
We may mock PETA for its excesses--I certainly do. But there are times--especially in the relatively unfettered past-- that research on animals can go too far. The trick is to make a considered and reasonable judgment about when that may be so, balancing the possible good with the probable harm likely to result. In that equation, people count more than animals, but animals still count for something.