Monkey in the Middle

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Harry Harlow set up one of the nation's best-equipped primate laboratories at the University of Wisconsin. His famous study focused on contact comfort in babyhood. He did an experiment with a rhesus monkey to see which would be more powerful, contact comfort or food.

In this experiment, he separated the baby monkeys from their mothers only a few hours after birth. He provided the babies with a choice between two fake mothers, one made out of uncomfortable wire but with nourishment, a bottle of milk, and the other with a layer of comfortable terry cloth.
contact comfort 2

Harlow found that baby monkeys preferred the terrycloth mother, spending as little time as possible on the wire frame mother. This overturned the previous assumptions that the primary basis for the attachment bond is the nourishment supplied by mothers. This study showed that contact comfort was more important than food, except when the baby monkey was actually eating. And when Harlow exposed monkeys to a scary stimulus, like a toy robot playing a drum, they were more likely to run to the terry cloth mother and cling to her for reassurance.

I found this study interesting because it seemed to prove a large phenomenon without any questioning. Since Harlow did not use real Rhesus monkey mothers in his experiment, one could potentially also conclude that a soft and cuddly mannequin would suffice just as well for a human baby as its mother. It seems like another study could be done with alive monkey mothers to prove this contact comfort theory further...


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You have a good point about them leaving out an alive monkey mother as another potential factor to determine which they would prefer. The only difficult part about using a real monkey mother is that they would be fluffy and have nourishment so it'd be hard to differentiate the reason for the baby going to her.

This is an effective and famous experiment, but could there have been other factors as to why the monkey repeatedly chose the terrycloth mother? From the picture, it seems as though the soft mother looks more similar to the rhesus monkey, and wouldn't it be second nature to be drawn to a mother that you can relate to?

This is a very interesting experiment, although it does have flaws like those mentioned above. Still, it's interesting to consider how such behavior would carry over to human babies. I think the nourishment is part of the comforting element in both humans and monkeys so it is very difficult to distinguish between the two.

I also believe that this experiment provided interesting results. I do wonder if a live monkey would change to outcome. There are instances where, tragically, the mother can't produce nourishment to the baby so that could be another experiment to try. It would be interesting to repeat this experiment ourselves and see what results we come up with.

The control is the monkey doing nothing apathetic. The monkey chooses a mother, and the mother chosen is the variable. If there were a live monkey, then it wouldn't be choice between nourishment and comfort. That's a different experiment.

Very interesting blog! This is a very intriguing research project they did on monkeys. I think your idea of using live monkeys in an experiment would be extremely tough to carry out, although it would be interesting to see the results! Overall, this experiment with the monkey and seeing which mother they prefer after birth is a great way to find out the real behaviors of monkeys and how they are genetically made to adapt to their environments.

Do you think the real mothers would only provide contact comfort? What other things would they provide? What applications do you think this might provide for human infants (perhaps in institutional settings)?

This entry was very interesting! I believe that this phenomenon could also be compared to how many young children seem almost attached to a certain blanket or stuffed animal. It provides comfort and warmth for the child just as the terrycloth mother did for the baby monkeys. The correlation of these two examples suggests that although nourishment is essential to a babies health, comfort and a feeling of security may often be of their upmost concern, whether it is a human or a monkey.

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This page contains a single entry by joh09252 published on April 1, 2012 2:10 PM.

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