Harry Harlow (1905-1981) was an American psychologist who studied social behavior of monkeys and applied his findings to human behavior and development. His work that is most applicable to the field of early learning involves the attachment behavior of rhesus monkeys “which are more mature than humans at birth, but like human babies show a range of emotions and require nursing to live.”1
Harlow took newborn monkeys from their mothers and gave them to surrogates. These surrogates varied, with some being made of only wire, while others were covered in cloth. Other variations had faces or could offer the newborns milk. Harlow learned that monkeys preferred cuddling with the cloth-covered surrogates to the wire “mothers,” even if the wire ones had food. However, these monkeys were not as well-adjusted as those who were raised by live mothers and had other young monkeys for playmates.
Harlow’s work is controversial (many of the monkeys showed severe reactions to their treatment, including self-harm and antisocial behaviors, which followed them throughout their lives), but it did demonstrate that maternal bonds were built on touch, not feeding alone.2
This theory of attachment can be applied to human children and was a foundation for the science of touch that has emerged.
- Recorded interview with Harlow as he describes his experiments
- Video overview of Harlow’s experiments and their implications regarding attachment and morality
Contact us with questions, concerns, and comments about this Early Learning Glossary entry.
Support Playvolution HQ
creating free content isn’t free
If you find our content here useful, entertaining, or interesting, consider ways you can support the site and our efforts to keep the content flowing.
For example, using our affiliate link when shopping Amazon is a great way to help-you pay the same amount and we receive a small percentage that’ll help keep the site up and running.
You can also support our work by becoming a patron via Patreon