Harlow's Pit of Despair: The Revolutionary Experiment Which Demonstrated the Importance of Parental Affection In Children's Development

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Harlow's Pit of Despair: The Revolutionary Experiment Which Demonstrated the Importance of Parental Affection In Children's Development

parental affection is essential for the child to have a normal development/ Photo By Kinga via shutterstock


In the first half of the 20th century, many psychologists held onto the idea that affection was merely for sentimental purposes, Very Well Mind says. There was also the pervading belief that showing affection to one’s child would only transmit diseases and result in having psychological problems in their adulthood. Most experts theories on love in that period centered on how the earliest bond between the mother and her child was only a way for a child to acquire their needs. A mother was only viewed as a source of food and drink as well as someone who shielded the child from pain.

The American Psychologist Harry Harlow challenged this notion of affection. He conducted several controversial experiments in the1960s to be able to observe the effects of love and attachment on a child’s development. His experiments involving rhesus monkeys showed the impact of the love of a caregiver as well as what happens when there is a lack of it. Although he subjected the animals to cruel treatment and his experiments were deemed unethical, they revolutionized the way psychologists’ approach to child development.

Cloth and Wire Substitute Mothers

According to allthatsinteresting.com, when he conducted the Child Isolation Experiment, baby rhesus monkeys were taken away from their mothers to see how it would affect their development. They were brought up by a “wire” and “cloth” mothers. The wire mother would give the infant monkeys with food, but was unable to give them comfort. Meanwhile, the cloth mother would give them warmth and comfort but be not capable of nourishing them. He saw that even though the infant monkeys would go to the wire mother for food, they would spend a longer time with their cloth mother.

Harlow then noted that “contact comfort” was more important in their development, whereas getting milk from the mother was of “negligible importance”.

Room Experiment

He was also able to show that the infant monkeys would use their cloth mother as a source of security, by conducting an experiment based on the psychologist Mary Ainsworth’s strange situation technique.

In another experiment, he let the baby monkeys go around a room both in the presence and absence of their cloth mother. When they had their cloth mother with them, they used it as a foundation in traveling other parts of the room. When Harlow took the cloth mother away, the infant monkeys were in a commotion since they lost a secure base. They started crying, shrieking, cowering, rocking and panicking.

depriving children of affection from their parents could have destructive effects on them/ Photo By George Rudy via Shutterstock


The Pit of Despair Experiment

Next, he placed some of the infant monkeys in an isolation chamber made of steel which he called the pit of despair. They were confined in that chamber for as long as ten weeks, around ten weeks or even for a few years. After some days have passed, the monkeys began gathering in the corner, not wanting to eat or move. This damaged the animals emotionally, socially and physically.

After freeing them from the pit, the infant monkeys to become severely depressed, hopeless, lost most of their weight, suffered from poor digestion became psychotic and became uninterested in the opposite sex. They also were not equipped with enough social skills and did not want to play with other monkeys.

Forced Breeding

Noticing that they did not exhibit normal sexual behavior, he then created the “rape rack”.  In there, isolated monkeys were tied in a mating position so that they would produce offspring. When the monkeys bore children, they were not able to look after them properly. The monkey mothers ended up neglecting and abusing their offspring. Harlow’s comment on these monkeys was, “Not even our most devious dreams could we have designed a surrogate as evil as this monkey mothers were.”

Effects of Harlow’s Findings

In the year 1985, the American Psychological Association stopped Harlow from performing further experiments. In the same year, they also implemented research rules regarding the treatment of humans and animals which would be participants of a study.

His experiments were able to illustrate that parental affection is essential for the child to have a normal development. They also demonstrated that depriving children of affection from their parents could have destructive effects on them. It could cause them to suffer emotionally and psychologically. In severe cases, it could even cause them to die.

Harlow’s research, together with other studies conducted by the psychologists Mary Ainsworth and John Bowlby reformed the way social service groups, child care providers, adoption agencies and orphanages tended to children.

His study earned him fame and prompted more psychologists to investigate more about affection, and interpersonal connections. However, he experienced an emotional turmoil when his wife suffered from a terminal illness. He became severely depressed and resorted to alcohol to cope with his situation. Gradually, this made him detached from his children. His later life may have been known for being tragic, however, his esteemed work was able to highlight how crucial it was for caregivers to provide children with affection, love, and comfort to ensure their healthy development.   




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