Three Lessons from Wire Mother

Fear and love shape infant development.

Posted Jun 23, 2018

The mid-20th century was the heyday for studying the force that love has on shaping human personality and social behavior. In my last blog on infant separation, I outlined the contributions of John Bowlby and his work on attachment.

American primatologist Harry Harlow offered the following: Baby monkeys cannot live on food alone, but need physical contact and affectional love.

Here is the historical context: The behaviorists and the psychoanalytic school were arguing about the mechanisms that connect an infant to his mother. Namely, they focused on feeding and food. The upshot, these theoreticians thought that if you feed a baby, he will associate you with food and develop positive feelings for you, the feeder.

Harlow wondered if humans could be so reduced. So he set up his now classic experiment with “wire” and “cloth” mothers.

In these experiments, he was addressing, “What is the nature of love?”

Harlow (1958). First published in American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.
Source: Harlow (1958). First published in American Psychologist, 13, 673-685.

Wire mother was a wire effigy of a “mom”, complete with a nipple and bottle. “She” was for food provision.

Cloth mother was soft, designed for clinging, but provided no food.

Q: When you frighten a baby monkey, who does she run to?  Wire mother who had been feeding her, or cloth mother who has provided nothing but “contact comfort”?

A: Cloth mother. No food, but something physically comforting to cling to.

Later experiments showed that infant monkeys would open a door hour after hour just to see cloth mother through a small window.

These experiments (and the films thereof) absolutely changed the way we saw parental care, and completely overthrew what John Watson, famous behaviorist, had warned us: “There is a sensible way of treating children. Treat them as though they were young adults… Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap… Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task…”.

I used to show the Harlow films in class. I don’t anymore because they routinely make students cry. There is nothing as pathetic as a pink faced baby monkey getting experimentally frightened only to cling inconsolably to a fake mother. 

But the message—together with the work of John Bowlby—is absolutely clear: You cannot raise baby primates (like humans), with material provisions alone, especially in situations of high fear.

What have we learned from a rather poorly made wire model of a “mother monkey”?

1.  Fear and anxiety shape developing humans, and a key role for caregivers is to help the young child regulate it.

2. Contact comfort is imperative for this emotion regulation.

3. Material resources are not enough.

To separate young children from their caregivers and group house them in fear-inducing contexts is one of the cruelest, large scale human experiments ever conducted.