Can the science of love catch up with common sense?

Doris McIlwain, Macquarie University

Deborah Blum Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, John Wiley & Sons, 2003 (360 pp). ISBN 0-47085-072-8 (paperback) RRP $49.95.

When psychologist Harry Harlow began his career in the 1950s psychology was in the grip of behaviourism. Behaviourists assumed that the mind was a black box: mind, thoughts, and emotion could not be studied because they could not be observed. We could only know the environmental events that produced behaviour—inputs and outputs: end of story. Behaviourism did not reign entirely unopposed—psychoanalysis was the established opposition while a handful of new dissenters, such as humanist psychologists Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, were opening up the study of how individuals pursued the highest meaning in life on the road to self-actualisation.

While behaviourism held sway in mainstream academic psychology, Harry Harlow wanted to study love. He thought it mattered, that is was important to development. He wasn’t prepared to walk away from the scientific methods he had acquired in studying rats. Yet his new Wisconsin department wouldn’t fund a rat lab for him. Neither was he prepared to walk away from his topic of interest, despite the unfashionable nature of love at that moment in the history of psychology. Harry Harlow’s catch cry was that if science were very careful it could almost catch up with common sense. His isolation studies with rhesus macaque monkeys graphically showed the power of love and suffering.

Harlow’s early work had shown that monkeys were extremely smart. His work on love showed how urgently they needed. His experiments gave tiny monkeys the option of two ‘mother’ surrogates: a cuddly soft terry-towelling mother or a wire mother who gave food in a kind of Bowlby-attachment-theory meets Freud-drive-theory experimental play off. The babies loved the soft cuddly surrogate mother, ran to her when afraid, drawing courage from her presence to challenge mechanical invaders and spent little time with the wire, feeding mother. Touch won out over hunger; Bowlby over Freud.

That early love could so powerfully shape a baby’s development, social adaptation, and sheer breeding and rearing ability was startling news at the time. As Deborah Blum reports ‘There was the conviction of mainstream psychology that affectionate mothering was irrelevant and that children could and should be trained’ (p. 57). J. B. Watson, president of the American Psychological Association and a behaviourist who didn’t believe in cognition let alone love, said ‘When you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument’ (p. 37). Watson’s was not a lone voice within mainstream psychology on this theme; many eminent psychologists like G. Stanley Hall urged less cuddling, more discipline. The psychoanalysis of the day, represented by the different schools of Anna Freud and Melanie Klein, was hardly more open to considering love as a powerful element in development. British psychoanalyst John Bowlby (1969) was thrown out of the Psychoanalytic Association because he championed the case for the importance of secure, early bonds in his attachment theory.

Behaviourism dominated the academy, but Harry Harlow wanted to study love.

The monkeys that experienced the odd deprivation of solitary rearing with still, silent cloth and wire surrogates are demonstrably similar to us, sharing 92 per cent of our genes and much of our capacity for curiosity, puzzle-solving, friendship, and despair. The monkeys in Harlow’s experimental lab had to endure so much because the scientific mainstream had not listened to evidence from observational research based on humans.

Science always entails a cycle of observing, forming hypotheses, and then testing those hypotheses, usually by direct experiment. Ethical concerns stop us imposing many things on a human being simply to observe their effects. Yet without the direct imposition of some experiences on one group and no such experiences on another ‘control’ group one can never be sure that other factors did not operate to produce observed effects. Experimentation permits us to talk about causality, while pure observation at best usually permits us to observe associations which we would test elsewhere.

By the 1950s the world of science had already seen observational data showing what happened to isolated, untouched infants in institutions. During the 1940s Viennese psychiatrist Rene Spitz made vivid films of children left alone in hospital and in other institutions. In one study, Spitz spent four months comparing children left in a foundling home and those in a prison nursery. The foundling home was a Don’t Touch sort of place, while the nursery was all noisy chaos of toy-filled rooms and tumbling children. When he left, twenty-three out of the eighty-eight well-fed children in the clean foundling home had died, despite antiseptic conditions. All children in the nursery survived. Spitz took his films around medical society meetings in New York in the late 1940s. Blum reports that ‘Critics shredded the film … as emotionally overwrought and non-scientific’ (p. 53).

Psychology doesn’t readily trust purely observational data. J. B. Watson said in 1913 that ‘Psychology as the behaviourist views it is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science’ (p. 39). While Charles Darwin didn’t do too badly making a theory out of systematic observation and astronomy is a science—though it has, as La Barre (1980) notes, never knocked a single star out of orbit—psychology prefers experiments. You couldn’t do experiments on humans of the type Harry Harlow did on monkeys, and the rest is history. In her stirring final chapter on the ethics of animal research Deborah Blum sincerely hopes that it is history. Harlow’s work may have brought needed insights at the time; let’s not squander them she says. ‘Let us not slip backwards, ever, into believing that we are not necessary to each other’s health and happiness’ (p. 308).

Psychology doesn’t readily trust purely observational data.

We’ve seen the intellectual climate of tough love that was the backdrop to Harlow’s experimental research; what did he find and how? Without enough money or prestige to have his own laboratory for rodentology, Harlow began by observing Capuchin monkeys in the local Madison Zoo. The intelligence he saw there made him realise that Gestaltists like Kohler had been on to something when they had argued that apes were capable of complex problem-solving and a variant of learning closer to insight than to random trial and error. The Gestaltists were then ‘fashionable to despise’, as human potential movement theorist Abraham Maslow noted (p. 91).

Animal intelligence had had a tough time—many thought that, at best, they could be conditioned to look intelligent. In the face of Skinner’s adamant belief that animals did not have feelings, Harlow, while respectful of the laws of conditioning discovered by the behaviourist, thought that conditioned responses weren’t the whole story about our ‘emotional, personal and intellectual characteristics’ (p. 96). His experiments demonstrated that many psychologists had been setting artificial limits on their subjects.

Harlow’s contemporaries normally tested an organism’s learning capacity in a single experiment. To avoid that learning interfering in subsequent learning experiments, they killed all those subjects and commenced new experiments with totally naïve subjects. Harlow’s research showed that animals could ‘learn to learn’ when not killed after a single one-trial experimental ‘Blitzkreig’ (to quote Harlow, p. 100). He used the Wisconsin General Test Apparatus (WGTA), also know as the Butler box. The WGTA was a cube-shaped cage divided in two by a sliding panel that could be raised or lowered by the monkeys. Harlow’s ongoing experiments with the same monkeys showed how quickly the animals could learn puzzles and how they got faster and more savvy with each new discrimination task required of them as they learned to learn. But Harlow also made a perhaps even more remarkable finding. Behaviourists thought animals would work only for tangible rewards that would reduce hunger or escape shock. Harlow showed they would work for novelty. They would lift the panel in the WGTA time and again purely to glimpse the changing world of the laboratory, thereby refuting the claim that it was simply conditioning rather than intelligence underpinning their behaviour, and showing the power of curiosity and interest. The monkeys would also work for a glimpse of their mother’s face, showing the power of love.

Harlow showed that monkeys would work for novelty.

Harlow started to wonder if social intelligence and cognitive intelligence might be linked. The connection wasn’t obvious among academics at the time. His department was nicknamed Goon Park partly because of its address (600 N. Park) and partly because of its uneasy politics. Blum recounts that ‘There were faculty members who didn’t speak to each other, accused each other of academic theft, spent their days making sure everyone else knew their places in the hierarchy … ’ (p. 123). Harlow’s colleague Carl Rogers was interested in unconditional love, empathy, and compassion, and made the theoretical assumption that people were basically decent. He said that the department ‘conspired to make people such as himself – and most of the students – live under a sense of perpetual threat’ (p. 124). It was tough to be backing a horse that wasn’t the favourite. Scientists are not always dispassionate to those threatening the dominant paradigm or intellectual fashion. Harlow used the methods of an insider, but his interest in love and his use of monkeys as subjects made him a ground-breaking outsider.

I noted above that experiments permit the search for causal links rather than merely observing associations. One can isolate a certain aspect of, say, affection and allow that to be present to the exclusion of other variables that might cloud the picture or confound the evidence. Harlow used experiments to test the unique effects of touch, food, and motion through appropriately modified ‘mother’ surrogates. ‘Swinging mom’ (p. 187) produced baby monkeys that were braver in the open field test than the children of an ordinary cloth mum. It seemed that mothers ‘with their soft arms and inclination to hold a baby close’ (p. 149) and to rock a child were important. If this was right, notes Blum, then ‘the Watsonian, Skinnerian, Hullian view of the world could be nothing less than wrong’ (p. 149). (Watson and Skinner thought that animals did not have feelings, while Hull was prepared to accord them basic drives which would motivate them to learn.) Harlow had shown that touch and movement mattered. He had shown that baby monkeys would work to satisfy curiosity rather than basic survival drives, and that they would work to see even a surrogate mother’s face. In short he had shown that behaviourism was wrong because of what it left out of the picture. It isn’t that conditioning and drives like hunger and sex don’t matter; it’s just that affects, emotions, and interactions with others also matter for development. And early on, it seems, love and interaction actually matter more.

Psychologists are still unravelling just how important love and interaction are.

Psychologists are still unravelling just how important love and interaction are. The tendency to focus on one variable and hold others constant has produced an odd form of intellectual evolution in psychology. It has focused on behaviour then cognition then affects then the uniqueness of specific interactions, leaping a decade each time as each of these new variables has come into view. After big B behaviourism in the 1950s psychology reclaimed some of the variables of interest to a full science of the person that were left inside the black box of behaviourism and assumed to be unimportant. The importance of the content of thought and beliefs returned as a proper domain of study in the cognitive revolution in the 1970s. The mainstream is now in the grip of the affective revolution that began in the 1980s with the Lazarus-Zajonc debate, which suggested that while cognition mattered, emotions were not constituted by thought (Lazarus 1991; Zajonc 1984). This was something the lone voice of Silvan Tomkins (1963) suggested in 1963, but he was never fully heard at the time.

Since the 1990s personality psychology has been reckoning with the formative importance of the quality of relationships and contingent appreciation of each person’s uniqueness. I refer here to notions of narcissism that Freud discussed clinically and theoretically in 1914, going strong with Grace Stuart (1956) in the 1950s and Heinz Kohut (1971) in the 1970s, and now receiving statistical and experimental testing. Narcissism is a personality style which was first recognised clinically. Narcissistic personalities find it hard to recognise others as individuals each with their own separate centre of initiative, and with their own feelings. This difficulty is said to arise from the narcissistic individual having been treated as an extension of the parents in some important ways, particularly regarding the reception by others of the child’s emotional experience. The context of discovery of this problem seems to be observational and clinical but, as we know, mainstream psychology will only embrace ideas in the form of hypotheses that have been tested and refined by experimentation or at least by research that involves numbers. While some, like Tomkins do both observation and experimentation, there is more often a time lag.

Harlow came to realise that while a swinging surrogate produced brave and highly curious little monkeys, static surrogates had not enabled the baby monkeys to accommodate to changes and to surprise (and, I would add, contingent responsiveness). The static surrogates produced children who were not socially accomplished but rather were what Blum refers to as ‘alien monkeys from the planet nowhere’ (Blum 2003, p. 193). This was because static surrogates had none of the attributes of social intelligence according to Irwin Bernstein (in his commentary on the surrogate project after he had moved away to further primate research in his own right). These surrogates had no sense of timing in social relationships as to when to hold tight and when to let go.

Harlow demonstrated that 'maternal instinct' is a misnomer—or takes experience to develop.

Harlow’s research took progressively darker turns. He created monster surrogate monkeys; violent mechanical booby traps capable of bone-shakingly intense movement and blunt spikes that shot unpredictably out from their chests. The baby monkeys merely clung tighter. The dark turn in his experimentation mirrored some considerable mental suffering in Harlow’s own life. He created an isolation chamber (after his own depression requiring ECT), which he referred to as the ‘pit of despair’, and ‘rape racks’ where female monkey isolates were strapped to see what happened when they gave birth to their own children. These isolate female monkeys would never spontaneously have had children. They stayed away from all others. By strapping them down so that they would conceive, Harlow was attempting to see whether in the absence of any experience of being cared for by another, would they be able to care for their own young? Was ‘maternal instinct’ going to be in evidence? The results were chilling and the newborn baby monkeys suffered terribly (see Blum 2003, p. 217). Harlow had demonstrated that the maternal instinct is either a misnomer or needs a bit of experience to permit its developmental unfolding. John Bowlby visited Harlow’s laboratory and commented that his research on rejection with the monster surrogates had produced powerful examples of psychopathology. Harlow then experimented with ‘peer therapists’; three month old female youngsters he described as ‘the most determined cuddlers on the face of the earth’ (p. 222) and slowly the isolates regained interest in exploring the world of the laboratory and in being with others again. But beyond six months of isolation, the uncared for animals seemed warped beyond repair.

Blum’s biography of Harlow portrays with an intelligent sympathy a man who suffered losses in his own life: divorce, the death of his second wife, and problems with alcohol. A man who, despite the power of his findings about the importance of love and affection in his laboratory, was quite an absent and neglecting parent himself. He had married twice, and with each marriage the woman’s career in psychology had suffered because university rulings at the time decreed that spouses could not be employed at the same institution. He was slow to respond to the winds of change with the rise of the women’s movement, often baiting his critics: ‘We felt we had really simulated the two extremes of womanhood – one with a hot body and no head, the other with a cold shoulder and no heart’ (p. 243). His messages were often laced with what Blum calls ‘anti-feminist mockery’. Some of his rather brutal studies had brutal delivery style. The surrogate project came under fire from animal liberationists as well, and those debates raged after Harry Harlow’s death.

Harlow’s project opened up many new areas of research. Love no longer had the ubiquitously sexual connotation it had had with Freud. Harlow’s experimental research had social consequences; it pushed the field forward to permit the rocking, stroking, and cuddling of premature infants, which in the ‘insular world of psychology’, Blum notes, required backing up ‘animal research and the neatly designed experiments, the graphs and the charts’ (p. 295).

Blum’s biography portrays Harlow with an intelligent sympathy.

However, through student voices Blum conveys a sense of what failed to arise in the research laboratory: a reflective and accountable community. One student Gary Griffin suggests that in the isolation studies ‘We achieved real devastation’. Another, John Gluck, said no-one challenged Harry about his ethics in the studies involving isolation, rejection, and forcible breeding of isolate monkeys who would not normally have borne young. The treatment of the monkeys was devastating but it has a human legacy as well, in that people stood by and permitted it to happen. Gluck doesn’t hold Harlow responsible but notes ‘I am just saying that access to moral resources, like empathy, comes from a community that sustains this kind of reflection. Harry neither created that type of community, nor did one emerge in the laboratory’. Marc Bekoff says, ‘You don’t tell famous people to stop’ (p. 303). Robert Sapolsky, a primate researcher known for his explorations of behaviour and social connections suggests what is perhaps a new catch cry for research like Harlow’s:

To the animal rights activists who would ban all animal experimentation, I unapologetically say that I am in favor of the use of animals in research. To the scientist who would deny the brutality of some types of animal research, I unapologetically say things can go too far (p. 295).


Bowlby, J. 1969, Attachment and Loss, Basic Books, New York.

Kohut, H. 1971, Analysis of the Self, International Humanities Press, New York.

Lazarus, R. S. 1991, Emotion and Adaptation, Oxford University Press, NY.

Stuart, G. 1956, Narcissus: A Psychological Study of Self-Love, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London.

Tomkins, S. 1963, Affect-Imagery-Consciousness, Springer Publishing Company, New York.

Zajonc, R. B. 1984, Emotions, Cognition and Behaviour, eds Caroll E. Izard, Jerome, Kagan and Robert B. Zajonc, Cambridge University Press, New York.

Dr McIlwain is a lecturer in Psychology at Macquarie University. Her research interests are in charismatic leader-follower relationships, and affective profiles of differing personality styles, such as narcissists, Machiavellians, and psychopaths. She is guest editor of a forthcoming special issue of Theory and Psychology on the work of Silvan Tomkins.