Why Was The Surrogate Mother Experiment Controversial?

By Antonia Čirjak on February 24 2020 in Society

The Surrogate Mother Experiment was one of the notorious behavioral experiments conducted by the American psychologist Harry Frederick Harlow.
The Surrogate Mother Experiment was one of the notorious behavioral experiments conducted by the American psychologist Harry Frederick Harlow.
  • The main focus of this experiment was to find out more about the connection between love and attachment, and healthy development.
  • When the unsocialized monkeys were made to socialize after being isolated, they displayed a wide variety of unusual and anti-social behaviors.
  • In today's world, these types of experiments would never be allowed to take place due to their highly unethical practices.

The Surrogate Mother Experiment was one of the notorious behavioral experiments conducted by the American psychologist Harry Frederick Harlow. The reason this experiment was considered controversial or unethical was because of the way the infant monkeys were treated. Many of the experiments Harlow conducted on the rhesus macaque were heavily criticized because of their cruelty and limited value.

The monkeys were segregated from their mothers and experimented on in cages, being deprived of social contact and maternal affection. Harlow's case is considered a classic in psychology experiments. Still, due to the presence of institutional review boards and code of ethics, such an experiment would never be approved in the present day. 

The Mother Made Of Wires And Cloth

Harlow's main focus was the exploration of the relationship between love and attachment and normal development. Even though his experiments were controversial and even cruel, he was relatively successful in demonstrating the importance of maternal bonds in the beginning stages of healthy development. For the notorious "mother" surrogate experiment, Harry Harlow used infant rhesus monkey.

These monkeys were deprived of their mothers and living in isolation from other monkeys. They were presented with a surrogate mother, made out of wires and a milk dispenser. This wire figure would provide them with food, but no maternal comfort. There was also a second surrogate made of both wires and terry cloth. The monkeys would seek out the wire surrogate for nourishment, but after their physiological needs were met, they opted to spend time with the cloth-covered surrogate. 

This development led him to the belief that the relationship between an infant and a mother was not just based on physiology; it was also the "tactile comfort" that made the difference. Harlow described those developments as a result of a biological need to touch and hold on to something for emotional comfort. In those days, there was a prevalent belief that maternal attachment was related primarily to psychological care.

The Pit Of Despair And Social Deprivation

In the other form of this type of an experiment, Harlow took infant monkeys and isolated them from their birth, depriving them of any potential contact with other monkeys. When the young monkeys were isolated, they were held in a "pit of despair," a device designed by Harry Harlow himself. Some of the monkeys were kept in the device for up to a year of their lives.

When they were released and forced to socialize, the monkeys displayed a variety of bizarre and unsocial behavior. They were scared of other monkeys and even showed signs of aggression, unable to communicate with them securely. Harlow concluded that the length of isolation directly influenced the intensity of their abnormal behavior, making them permanently damaged and incapable of socializing. 

These experiments produced significant evidence for the importance of the parent-child relationship in infant development. Even though Harlow's experiments were cruel and controversial at best, they still provided some of the most critical findings in the field of behavioral psychology. Harlow's discoveries also made a positive impact on the unemotional period of child-rearing that was starting to develop in the '50s.

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