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Harry Harlow Biography (1905-1981)

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"So far as love or affection is concerned, psychologists have failed in their mission. The little we know about love does not transcend simple observation, and the little we write about it has been written better by poets and novelists." – Harry Harlow, "The Nature of Love," 1958

Best Known For:

  • Social isolation experiments with rhesus monkeys

Birth and Death:

  • Harry Harlow was born on October 31, 1905 in Fairfield, Iowa.
  • He died on December 6, 1981 in Tuscan, Arizona.

Early Life:

Harry Harlow (born Harry Israel) grew up in Iowa and later went on to attend Reed College in Portland, Oregon for one year. After passing a special aptitude test, he enrolled at Stanford University where he started out as an English major. His grades were so bad that after one semester he switched to the study of psychology.

While at Stanford, Harlow studied with psychologist Lewis Terman who had developed the Stanford-Binet intelligence test. In 1930, he earned his Ph.D. in Psychology and later changed his last name from Israel to Harlow.

Career:

After graduating from Stanford, Harlow was offered a position at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. While at the school, he established the pioneering Primate Laboratory where he would perform his controversial social isolation experiments. Harlow's classic series of experiments were conducted between 1957 and 1963 and involved separating young rhesus monkeys from their mothers shortly after birth. The infant monkeys were instead raised by surrogate wire monkey mothers.

In one version of the experiment, one of the "mothers" was made entirely from wire while the other was covered in a soft cloth. Harlow found that regardless of whether or not the cloth covered mother provided food, the infant monkeys would cling to her for comfort. On the other hand, the monkeys would only select the wire mother when she provided food.

Harlow's presented his results at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association in 1958 and also reported his findings in his classic article entitled "The Nature of Love" in the journal American Psychologist.

Later experiments looked at social isolation by raising rhesus monkeys either in total or partial isolation. Harlow and his students found that such isolation led to a variety of negative outcomes including severe psychological disturbances and even death.

Contributions to Psychology:

Harlow's experiments were shocking and controversial. Most would be considered unethical by today's standards. However, his research played an important role in shaping our understanding of child development. Prevailing thought during Harlow's time suggested that paying attention to young children would "spoil" them and that affection should be limited. Harlow's work instead demonstrated the absolute importance of developing safe, secure, and supportive emotional bonds with caregivers during early childhood.

Many experts at the time also believed that feeding was the primary force between the mother-and-child bonds. Harlow's work suggested that while feedings are important, it is the physical closeness and contact that provides the comfort and security that a child needs for normal development. Harlow's work along with that of other researchers including psychologist John Bowlby and pediatrician Benjamin Spock helped spark a revolution in our approach to child care and child rearing.

Selected Publications:

  • Harlow, H. F. (1950. The effect of large cortical lesions on learned behavior in monkeys. Science.

  • Harlow, H. F. (1958). Biological and Biochemical Bases of Behavior. University of Wisconsin Press.

  • Harlow, H. F., et al. (1971). The sad ones: Studies in depression. Psychology Today 4(12), 61-63.

  • Harlow, H. F. (1973). A variable-temperature surrogate mother for studying attachment in infant monkeys. Behavior Research Methods 5(3), 269-272.

  • Harlow, H. F. (1975). Lust, latency and love: Simian secrets of successful sex. Journal of Sex Research 11(2), 79-90.

Recommended Reading

  • Harlow, H. F. (1958). The nature of love. American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.

  • Blum, D. (2002). Love at Goon Park. New York: Perseus Publishing.

 

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