Mad Scientists – Harry Harlow’s “Pit of Despair” for Baby Monkeys

Mad Scientists – Harry Harlow’s “Pit of Despair” for Baby Monkeys

Psychology in the ’50s was not exactly the goat-wool socks level it is nowadays. Back then issues such as conformity, obedience and power were examined. Scientist Harry Harlow, hippie avant le lettre, would have none of it. He believed in something else: the power of love.

Unfortunately, his research methods weren’t as gentle as his believes. To prove that children need a mother’s love, Harlow subjected baby monkeys to nasty experiments. He thought of the “The Pit of Despair” (Harlow wasn’t any good with euphemisms), a small isolation cell in which the monkeys lived for a year. The results were dramatic: after “liberation” the victims were psychotic, depressed and uninterested in the opposite sex. Difficult, because Harlow wanted to test whether the monkeys would be good parents themselves. So he tied the females to an apparatus called the “Rape Rack” (another invented term), so that they could still be fertilized. The outcomes were little successful: the traumatized mother monkeys were completely unable to care for their children.

It is true that Harlow had little difficulty in isolating and torturing baby monkeys: according to him, everything was permitted in the name of science. But to be honest: based on his conclusion “babies and children need love” indeed made sure that improvements were made within youth care. As his biographer Deborah Blum wrote about his research: “the best way to understand the heart is to break it.”

HARLOW HF, & ZIMMERMANN RR (1959). Affectional responses in the infant monkey; orphaned baby monkeys develop a strong and persistent attachment to inanimate surrogate mothers. Science (New York, N.Y.), 130 (3373), 421-32 PMID: 13675765

Anouk Vleugels

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