Mad Scientist #1: Harry Harlow

As far as careers go, comparative psychologist Harry Harlow had a pretty good run of things. The guy founded and chaired the internationally renowned Primate Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He generated over 320 research papers during his 50+ year career, won the National Medal of Science, and was even elected president of the American Psychological Association back in the 50s.

He’s also been described as a “sadistic rapist,” single-handedly responsible for the rise of the animal liberation movement.

As a comparative psychologist, Harlow believed that by studying the minds of animals, we could gain insight into our own psychology. His research dealt with the effects of maternal separation on one of God’s most cuddliest of creations, the baby rhesus macaque (pictured above looking ingenuous as all hell).

But enough necessary background information. The best way to get a feel for Harlow’s research is to hear about it from the man himself. So here’s a clip of Harlow discussing what’s probably his most highly regarded experiment:

Now for a mad scientist, Harlow’s methods weren’t all that absurd (oh man, wait till I get to guys like Demikhov and Bruyukhonenko). There were a number of researchers studying the effects of maternal deprivation on baby monkeys at the time.

What really got peoples goat, however, were the outrageous, dare I say evil, names he devised for his experimental contraptions. One particularly controversial set of studies involved sequestering monkeys for periods of up to a year in a so-called “well of despair,” a sunken isolation chamber devoid of virtually any sensory stimulation. The goal was to create an animal model of human depression, and it worked, the monkeys emerged horribly maladjusted. When they refused to mate, he created a forced mating device he called the “rape rack” in order to study how the isolates performed as parents. They turned out to be violently abusive, with one mother reportedly chewing off her child’s fingers, and another crushing her kid’s head.

One of the major criticisms echoed throughout the animal rights community is that these results are simply common sense. If you severely isolate a social creature, of course it’s gonna get fucked up. If you give a child the choice between cold wire and comfy cloth, of course it’s going to choose the cloth. But when you look closely, it’s hard to dismiss Harlow’s work as nothing more than a validation of the obvious.

His research came at a time when the psychological establishment was busy warning parents against the dangers of “mother love.” John Watson worried that too much mothering would turn our children into dependent sissies. “Never hug and kiss [your children],” he wrote, “Never let them sit on your lap.” B.F. Skinner’s second daughter spent the first two and a half years of her life in a box. A box people!

"Redundancy in the surrogate mother's system was avoided by reducing the number of breasts from two to one and placing this unibreast in an upper-thoracic, sagittal position, thus maximizing the natural and known perceptual-motor capabilities of the infant operator."

Harlow’s experiments on maternal deprivation reaffirmed the importance of close, physical contact in healthy child development (be it from a mother’s touch, or a cotton-pleated surrogate). His “well of despair” proved to be, at the very least, a reliable means of inducing depression in rhesus monkeys, and bears more than a striking resemblance to some of the world’s worst third world orphanages. Who’s to say what Harlow or others would have discovered if they used this model to test treatments for depression.

Though to Harlow’s credit as a mad scientist, he was out for more than just models of depression and parental advice. In his famous 1958 address to the American Psychological Association entitled “The Nature of Love,” Harlow set out his methodical raison d’etre: “Love is a wondrous state, deep, tender, and rewarding. Because of its intimate and personal nature it is regarded by some as an improper topic for experimental research. But, whatever our personal feelings may be, our assigned mission as psychologists is to analyze all facets of human and animal behavior into their component variables.”

Harlow wanted to be remembered as the scientist who cracked the mystery of the human heart. But in order to study love, he knew, he must also study hate.

Like a god he was to these apes, and they his Job!

All this high-concept high-faulutiness earns Harlow a well-deserved spot as the very first mad scientist on Mad Scientist Blog.

Alright fine here’s another freaky clip:

15 thoughts on “Mad Scientist #1: Harry Harlow

  1. Ruth

    WOW! I have read about Harry Harlow but never appreciated what he did as a reflection of the times he lived in. Also, what unbelievable experiments. That poor monkey!!! Thanks.

  2. Amy

    What a sick twisted demented bastard! His experiments were sick and had obvious results. I think he was just a sadist not a scientist!

  3. Mapaki Papaki

    What an incredibly disgusting person. Makes me feel disgrace to be part of the human race. If there is any way this sick man could be called a doctor then there is something so wrong with our race.
    You don’t need to torture a baby monkey to prove what is common sense! If you scare an creature to death it will seek comfort! Harry Isreal Harlow: You ARE an utter TWIT!

    1. Max Hartshorn Post author

      Thanks Mapaki! I ask you though, is it really common sense that a monkey can develop a strong emotional attachment to a piece of cloth?

      In that experiment, Harlow demonstrates the important role simple creature comfort plays in an infant’s attachment to its mother. Even though the wire mother gives the monkey milk, the child certainly has a much stronger emotional connection with the cloth mother. I don’t this is obvious without seeing the results of his experiment.

        1. Jake Bright

          Lol you’re such an idiot. Yes, I agree that what he did was a little fucked up but he his experiments changed the world today. The experiment was not worthless, not one bit. An an animal who has strong emotional feelings for a piece of cloth? The cloth mother doesn’t feed him. But still the monkey had strong feelings for it. When the monkey was scared, it went to the cloth mother for comfort because it believed that the cloth mother was its actual parent and not the wire mother.

  4. Pingback: Five Horrifying Psychological Experiments | Trysk's Space

  5. bob

    harlow’s infant monkey study photos are some of the saddest & most disturbing images I ever came across. the irony is that the images raise immediate questions not so much about the intent of harlow’s experiments, but about how one primate species could do that to another, on a speculative basis for its own benefit. the images represent a staged laboratory sadism in the name of understanding an actual real world sadism – child neglect.
    which is worse?

    1. Hoowee

      I agree. Harry Harlow was a cuckoo. Just because a person gets funding from the powers that be doesn’t mean they’re not. It might just confirm it. The Nazi state anyone? And how in the world do the ‘no physical affection for the kiddies’ theories of John Watson validate Harlow? Two nutters one source: western civilization and its science, which too often needs many years and much cash to come up with things that humans should instinctively know. We humans should be able to figure out pretty much, without going through all that Harlow did, that a monkey will be more comfortable and attach more strongly when creature comforts are present in a survival situation.

  6. Dan

    I went to art school with Skinner’s daughter in the 70s. I only had one conversation with her. It was interesting. I didn’t know she was the girl in the box at the time.

    Too bad your videos aren’t available anymore. Is it possible to get a description of what was in them? It’s possibly I’ve seen them. One monkey can’t stand contact to the extent that he tries to tear his own arm off rather than be touched by another monkey.

    I empathized with that monkey. The orphanage I lived in had qualities in common with some of the monkey experiments.

  7. Tanya

    It’s so frustrating to see Harlow’s experiments hailed as proving something about Mother Love. In article after article people accept his naming of “wire mother” vs. “cloth mother”. Neither are mothers! It drives me bonkers. All these experiments prove is that a pillow is more comfortable than a piece of wire.

  8. Bready

    Oh boy… There is honestly no way you can justify such torture. What does all of this prove? That a soft object is more comfortable than wires? To me, this is not science- Harlow let his own frustrations out on these poor creatures and created unrealistic scenarios in order to make them feel miserable.
    I’m certain there are many ways to show that animals feel emotions like we do and that motherly love is necessary for development. This here is just sadism. He could’ve left it at the experiments with the cloth and the wire “mother”, everything beyond that point was nuts.
    I’m generally surprised how ridiculous humans can be that they think love isn’t needed for survival. We are social creatures and anyone who knows what being lonely feels like should be aware of that.
    What these experiments mostly show is that something was genuinely wrong with Harry Harlow- any normal human being would’ve not been able to continue such experiments.

    Unrelated but I enjoy your site- thanks for all of the interesting articles and texts!


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