Harlow’s Experiment and Maternal Deprivation: Replacing the Mother

When talking about psychology, many people may think of personality traits, mental disorders, or cognitive biases. In short, elements that can be related to a single person: everyone has their level of intelligence, the presence or absence of a diagnosed disorder, or a propensity to fall into certain disappointments of the mind. However, there is one topic that is also heavily covered by psychology: how interpersonal relationships change us.

The dominant paradigms in the first half of the twentieth century in psychology, which were the psychodynamics born with Sigmund Freud and the behaviorism advocated by BF Skinner, supported the idea that the foundation of affection between mothers and their grandsons and daughters of age is food and, more specifically, breastfeeding. In their own way, each of these two psychological currents, so different from each other in most of their approaches, proposed the same idea: that babies and mothers begin to engage in affective behavior through necessity. to feed the first. Right after birth, the main role of mothers was to feed their offspring.

However, psychologists John Bowlby and later Harry Harlow strongly objected to this theory. It is because of them that we know today that affection in its purest and most literal sense is a basic need of boys and girls. Specifically, Harry Harlow’s experience with monkeys on maternal deprivation is one example.

Previous: Bowlby and the Tilt Theory

In the mid-twentieth century, an English psychiatrist and psychologist named
John Bowlby carried out a series of research framed in what is called the theory of conditions. It is a framework for debate in which the psychological phenomena that underlie our way of establishing emotional bonds with other beings are explored, and in this framework is particularly important the way in which parents relate to each other. their babies during the first months of his life.

The reason for this interest in the early stages of link building is simple:
it is assumed that the way in which the little ones forge continuous relationshipsClose and with signs of affection with others will affect their development into adulthood and will impact, possibly lifelong, on many of their psychological characteristics.

Bowlby’s research

Through various studies,
John Bowlby concluded that having every baby regularly has a maternal condition is one of the most important needs. given its good growth.

In part, this was based on their beliefs: Bowlby took an evolutionary approach and championed the idea that selected mothers and infants express specially selected genes so that the two form a strong emotional bond. In other words, he believed that the establishment of the maternal condition was genetically programmed, or at least in part. Additionally, he argued that the strongest bond anyone can make is one that is based on the relationship he had with his mother in the early years of his life.

This phenomenon, which he called monotropy, could not be consolidated if this exchange of affectionate gestures accompanied by physical contact (classically, during breastfeeding) occurred once the second year of the child’s life, and not before. In other words, maternal deprivation, the lack of regular contact with a mother who provided affection during the first months of life, was very detrimental to go against what our genetics would have programmed us.

What did these studies consist of?

Bowlby also relied on empirical data. In this regard, he found data that reinforced his theory. For example, through research commissioned by the World Health Organization on children separated from their families due to World War II, Bowlby found significant evidence that young people who had experienced maternal deprivation due to life in orphanages tended to present intellectual retardation and problems achieving success. deal with both their emotions and situations in which they have had to interact with other people.

In a similar survey, he observed that among children who had been incarcerated for several months in a sanatorium to treat their tuberculosis before the age of 4,
they had a distinctly passive attitude and got angry much more easily than the rest of the youth.

From that point on, Bowlby continued to find data that reinforced his theory. He concluded that maternal deprivation tended to generate a clinical picture in young people characterized by emotional disinterest in others. People who had not been able to form an intimate bond of affection with their mother during their early years were unable to empathize with others because
they had not had the opportunity to connect emotionally with someone during the stage in which they had been sensitive to this type of learning..

Harry Harlow and the Rhesus Monkey Experiment

Harry Harlow was an American psychologist who in the 1960s set out to study Bowlby’s theory of maternal affection and deprivation in the laboratory. To do this, he conducted an experiment with rhesus monkeys which, by current ethical standards, would be impractical due to the cruelty involved.

What Harlow did was basically
separate some macaque puppies from their mother and observe how their maternal deprivation was expressed. But he did not limit himself to passive observation, but introduced into this research an element with which it would be easier to know what the little monkeys were feeling. This element was the dilemma of choosing between something akin to physical contact with affection and warmth, or with food.

Substitute the sea

Harlow brought these puppies into cages, a space they were to share with two artifacts. One was a metal structure with a built-in full bottle, and the other was a figure similar to an adult macaque,
covered with soft plush, but no bottle. The two objects, in their own way, pretended to be a mother, although the nature of what they could offer the offspring was very different.

In this way, Harlow wanted to test not only Bowlby’s ideas, but also another hypothesis: that of conditional love. According to him, puppies relate to their mother primarily through the food they provide them, which is objectively the most useful resource in the short term from a rational and “economist” point of view.

What was discovered

The result proved Bowlby right.
The puppies showed a clear tendency to cling to the stuffed doll, although they did not provide food. The affection towards this object was much more noticeable than what they professed towards the structure with the bottle, which supported the idea that it is the intimate bond between mothers and children that is really important, and not just food.

In fact, this relationship was noticeable even in the way the puppies explored the environment. The plush doll seemed to provide a sense of security that was crucial for the little macaques to decide to undertake certain tasks on their own and even hug him more tightly when they were afraid. At times when a change in the stressful environment was introduced, the puppies would run to hug the soft doll. And, when the animals were separated from this plush artifact, they showed signs of desperation and fear, screaming and searching for the protective figure all the time. When the plush doll was returned to hand, they recovered, they remained on the defensive in case they would lose sight of this artificial mother again.

Induce isolation in monkeys

The stuffed doll and bottle experiment was of questionable morality, however, Harlow went further by worsening the living conditions of some macaques. He did this by locking the young of this animal species inside, isolating them from any kind of social or, in general, sensory stimulus.

In these isolation cages, there was only one trough, a dining room, which was a total deconstruction of the concept of “Mother” according to behaviorists and Freudians. In addition, a mirror had been incorporated into this space through which one could see what the macaque was doing but the macaque could not see its observers. Some of these monkeys remained in this sensory isolation for a month, while others remained in their cages for several months; some up to a year.

The monkeys exposed to this type of experiment already showed obvious alterations in their behavior after spending 30 days in a cage, but those who remained for a full year were left in a state of total passivity (linked to catatonia) and indifference. towards the others of which they did not recover. The vast majority end up developing social and affection problems in adulthood, unwilling to find a partner or have children, some did not even eat and eventually died.

Negligent mothers … or worse

When Harry Harlow decided to study the maternal behavior of the macaques he had suffered in isolation, he ran into the problem that these female monkeys did not get pregnant. For this, he used a structure (“the rape foal”) in which the females were tied with straps, forcing them to be impregnated.

Later observations showed that these females not only did not perform the typical tasks of a mother of their species, ignoring their young most of the time, but sometimes even mutilated their young. All this, in principle, due to maternal deprivation, but also to social isolation, during the first months of life.

Conclusions: the importance of tilt

John Bowlby’s research and Harry Harlow’s experiments are widely taken into account today, although the latter are also a clear case of torture against animals, and
for their ethical implications, they have been strongly criticized.

The two experiments led to similar ideas: the effects of the absence of social interactions that go beyond the most immediate biological needs and are related to emotional behavior in the early stages of life tend to leave a mark. very serious imprint. Serious and difficult to erase in adulthood.

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