Monday, May 9, 2011

Attachment Matters: The Wire Mother Experiment

We love documentaries and Netflix has a ton of them, so this morning while eating our crepes, we watched the start of the PBS documentary "This Emotional Life."  The beginning of the film talks about attachment between infants and parents and how your emotional self really starts developing as early as immediately after birth.  For some reason I knew they were going to discuss Eastern European orphanages, and yes, that's exactly where there were going.  I'm not sure if it's common knowledge or not, but between the end of the Cold War and the 1990s,  many of the Eastern European orphanages operated at a disturbingly high capacity; many of them with a ratio of 15-20 infants per nurse.  With that kind of work load, the nurses often only had time to provide food and diaper changes for the babies; if the babies cried for comfort, those cries were ignored.  Effectively the babies stayed in their cribs and had little interaction day in and day out.  Many of these orphans stay in the orphanages for up to 3 years before being adopted.  A consequence of this can sometimes be the development of Reactive Attachment Disorder in the children.

What really struck me about this segment of the documentary was the discussion of Harry Harlow's Wire Mother Experiment.  The tl;dr (too long; didn't read) version of this experiment is this: back in the days where experiments with questionable ethics were still allowed, a psychologist named Harry Harlow conducted a series of highly controversial experiments with rhesus monkeys to explore the "power" of love.  One of these experiments was called The Wire Mother Experiment.  Only a few hours after birth, each rhesus monkey was put in a cage with two wire "surrogate" mothers; one of the mothers was covered in a comforting terry cloth towel but provided no food.  The other mother was purely wire but provided food in an attached bottle.  Over the course of the experiment, all monkeys were found to have spent significantly more time with the terry cloth mother despite the lack of food.  "These data make it obvious that contact comfort is a variable of overwhelming importance in the development of affectional response, whereas lactation is a variable of negligible importance," Harlow explained (1958). There is no element of this experiment that doesn't strike me as tragic; from the ethics of the treatment of these monkeys right up to the conclusions that can be drawn from the study.

As taken from the Wikipedia:

The importance of these findings is that they contradicted both the then common pedagogic advice of limiting or avoiding bodily contact in an attempt to avoid spoiling children and the insistence of the then dominant behaviorist school of psychology that emotions were negligible. Feeding was thought to be the most important factor in the formation of a mother-child bond. Harlow concluded, however, that nursing strengthened the mother-child bond because of the intimate body contact that it provided. He described his experiments as a study of love. He also believed that contact comfort could be provided by either mother or father. Though widely accepted now, this idea was revolutionary at the time.

I think we can take a lot from this information, or at least, I do.  I find it especially interesting to think about how it relates to contemporary opinions on the Cry It Out method, breast feeding, and Attachment Parenting in general.  I'm no scientist so I can't really speak super intelligently about the specific conclusions we can draw, but I think it's food for thought.

Here is a video that talks more about the experiment:

More about this:

Harry Harlow on the Wikipedia
The Nature of Love (1958) - Harry Harlow, American Psychologist, 13, 573-685
Harry Harlow: Monkey Love Experiments - Adoption History
Harry Harlow - A Science Odyssey: People and Experiment
Chicken Wire Mother

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  1. I have to shudder at the Harlow study being linked to a movement that advances love, although I know what you can take from the findings. Those monkeys were treated appallingly even by the standards of mid 20th century experimental psychology and I'm not talking about them being separated from their mothers though the way that was done in itself seems inhuman to me.


  2. His other experiments were just as bad if not worse.

    I remember in my undergrad psychology classes it shocked me that the vast majority of the studies they did in the 1900s that are always being referenced as being the most important (like Milgrim for example) were the most unethical. A study like Milgrim's or Harlow's would never get by ethics boards today, thankfully.


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