Evaluation of Harlow’s Monkeys Experiment

Evaluation of Harlow’s Monkeys Experiment.

PS124: Introduction to Psychology

Evaluation of Harlow’s Monkeys Experiment.

The study that I have chosen to write about is Harlow’s Monkeys. This experiment was designed to learn about the way attachments are formed in infant monkeys, but has significant overlap with humans, as well.

After noticing that baby monkeys would show signs of distress when their blankets were removed for cleaning, Harlow set up an experiment to see what drove this attachment. Attachment theory suggests that infants form bonds with their parents as a means of survival. This attachment bond ensures that the young will stay close to those that will provide protection. Schemas are formed in the infant mind of their parents’ faces. That is equated with comfort and safety. Stranger anxiety also develops. When confronted with an unfamiliar face the child will seek the comfort of the parent. (Myers,2014) In Harlow’s experiment, two mothers were presented. One was constructed from wire mesh with a nipple for feeding, while the other was made of soft materials but without a means of providing nourishment. The monkeys that were given both options preferred contact with the cloth mother over the wire mother. Often they would remain in contact with the cloth mother even while feeding from the wire mother. When the environment was manipulated to cause the monkeys to experience distress, they would seek the comfort of their cloth mother over the wire mother. Even though the wire mother provided nourishment, it seems as something just as important was provided by the cloth mother. Babies that were not given a cloth mother, when presented with the same stressors, would retreat to solitude and display extreme anxiety and distress. This observation suggests that contact with a gentle soft touch is far more involved with bonding than is the act of feeding.

Social observational learning is a form of modeling that occurs as children watch what their parents and peers do in various social situations. After having made these observations, they will then model their own behavior after what they have seen. Without exposure to an actual parent or to any peers, this type of learning could not occur for these baby monkeys. Even still the reaction to stressful situations were consistent with all of the infants, based on the type of mothers available to them.

In the debate of nature versus nurture, the question is posed as to which has the greater influence over behavior. Nature is the term for traits that are biological and are given to us by our genetics. Nurture, then, would be that which we learn from our experiences. In this example, it seems to be clear that seeking a soft comforting presence is a biological imperative. This isn’t something that is learned, it is something we naturally gravitate towards. However, environmental influences still played a part in this experiment. The monkeys learned that when they needed sustenance, they had to go to the wire mother, but they always returned to the cloth mother.

Even though much was learned from this experiment, it was not ethical. One of the main points of ethics is to protect the subjects of experimentation from harm and discomfort as much as possible.(Myers, 2014) Observing the behavior displayed under distress by the monkeys that were not given a cloth mother makes it clear that harm was done and discomfort was high.


Myers, D. G. (2003). Exploring psychology (5th ed.). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.