Harlow’s Rhesus Monkeys – Describing and Analyzing a Famous Psychological Experiment

Describe and analyze a famous psychological experiment. Summarize and describe the experiment, discussing the research methods that were used. You many also want to examine the ethics of the experiment and discuss the implications.

Harlow’s Rhesus Monkey Experiment

            Harry Frederick Harlow (1905-81) is among one of the most celebrated American psychologists, famous for his lifelong contribution to the field. He attended Stanford University and graduated in 1930 with a PhD in psychology. Later on, Harlow accepted an offer of professorship at the prestigious University of Wisconsin-Madison and was accorded adequate laboratory space to conduct pioneering research.  Today he is celebrated for his studies on dependency needs and maternal-separation which were conducted at the university laboratory using rhesus monkeys as test subjects. This paper will provide an in-depth analysis of the experiment, the research methods used, ethics and implications of the study to the scientific community.

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Summary of the Rhesus Monkey Experiment

            Harlow conducted the Rhesus Monkey experiment to investigate social isolation, dependency needs and to define aspects of maternal-separation. His main objective was to underscore the significance of caregiving to specific aspects of cognitive and social development. The experiment began in 1932 with a breeding program for rhesus macaque test subjects. This ensured an unending stream of primate subjects, especially when seeking to corroborate results gathered from initial experiments (Ottaviani & Meconis, 2015).  Infant monkeys were separated from their mothers, placed in a nursery setting and routinely cared for by psychology research students from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. By so doing, Harlow was introducing the first phase of his experiment involving maternal depravation.  It soon became apparent that these particular monkeys displayed atypical tendencies.  Lab monkeys were dissimilar from their counterparts raised by mothers living within the colony.  They experienced difficulty interacting with other monkeys, consistently clung to their diapers and showed clear signs of aggression. Thus, Harlow established that the infant’s attachment to its cloth diaper was a result of lack of a maternal figure to tend to their emotional needs. The experiment was based on the premise that children required maternal figures for social and cognitive development. Separation from mothers led to distress and a myriad of psychological problems which negatively affected the infant’s development.

            Moreover, Harlow also embarked on an investigation of the significance of a primary caregiver in a child’s life. Surrogate mothers were then developed for the infants using inanimate objects. The rhesus infants immediately clung to a specific wire or wood surrogate mother and bonded. He then introduced a clothed and bare-wire mother to review the demeanor of the rhesus infants in this new condition.  Although the bare-wire surrogate mother provided nourishment to the infants, they eventually clung to the bare-wire replica for emotional support. Harlow defined this phenomenon as “care comfort” which he regarded as an important element of social, psychological and cognitive development in children (Savva, 2014). It was, essentially, a reflection of the importance of motherly love during the formative years of a child’s development.  The inanimate surrogate mothers provided a sense of comfort whenever the monkeys were in unfamiliar territory and in frightening setups. Furthermore, the introduction of a fear stimulus revealed that the infants were less bold when their inanimate surrogate mothers were unavailable and vice versa.  Harlow also investigated the impact of social isolations in rhesus monkeys as a model for a study on depression. Individual monkeys that were separated from their surrogate mothers and other members of the colony displayed heightened level of stress. This was a clear indication of depression. They also had a difficult time interacting and socializing with the other monkeys when reintroduced to a social setting

Ethics of the Experiment

The use of infant rhesus monkeys in the study for biomedical and behavioral research raised numerous ethical questions. While the work was invaluable in enabling the scientific community gain a better understanding of monkey development and cognition, it was critiqued for ignoring ethical implications. The monkeys were subjected to a great deal of emotional angst by being separated from other members of the colony and raised in isolation. They were persistently depressed and expressed a persistent anxiety. These problems spilled over into adulthood where the monkeys had a difficult time interacting with other members of the colony due to their heightened level of anxiety (Kimmel, 2019, p. 45). They ultimately became neurotic and, at one point, even directed their anger to other monkeys.

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Harlow’s work with rhesus monkeys revolutionized and further developed behavioral science. It was through his experiment that social relationships are now understood and their role during the development of human children. Additionally, his experiment also displayed the important of comfort companionship in healthy cognitive and psychological development of infants. Harlow’s study revealed the negative impact of maternal depravation and isolation to infants during the initial phase of development. He, therefore, introduced revolutionary empirical evidence to the scientific community by highlighting the importance of the parent-child relationship as a building block of human behavior. Furthermore, the results gathered during this study disputed traditional pedagogic advice provided by behavioral psychologist which directed mothers to avoid bodily contact with their children. The ethical dilemma of using infant rhesus monkeys also resulted in the animal liberation movement that has since blossomed in the United States to prevent acts of cruelty against non-human test subjects.

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