Harlow (1958) conducted a laboratory experiment investigating the “Cupboard-Love Theory”; a theory using the behaviourist approach, which try to explain the formation of Attachment is achieved through Operant Conditioning. It suggests infants’ connection with parents or primary care givers are only achieved through rewards such as security or food. When infants are hungry, they would be in a craving state for food. However, when their primary care givers or parents deliver them food, they would no long feel hungry, and at the same time learned that good relationship with the food deliver is beneficial. It is Operant Conditioning, as it suggests infants learn from consequences.

In Harlow’s study, he carried out his experiment using baby rhesus monkeys which were taken away from their mothers. The baby monkeys been allocated into a condition with two artificial surrogate mother; one is a monkey figure made by terry cloth, and the other one is made by bare wire with milk. They represent ‘Comfort’ and ‘Food’. After the monkeys got familiar with the condition, they got exposed to frightening stimulus. It been found that infant monkeys tend to choose the ‘terry cloth’ mother as their safe-base when being frightened, providing an evidence against the cupboard love theory.

One advantage of Harlow using the experimental settings is that extraneous variables can be tightly controlled. All the baby monkeys were through in almost identical conditions, being isolated from the outside world which may affect the findings. Furthermore, it makes replication of the study easier if we would like to test the reliability.

However, many criticised on the ethical issues in which the study was involved with. The baby monkeys were taken away from their parents, and did not have a choice whether to take part. Unlike human participants, they did not have the right to withdraw. Furthermore, the monkeys have been through harm for taking part in the stud. Not only did they experienced fear by the the frightening stimulus, they also showed signs of attachment deprivation, of which they failed to form Attachment and affect their lives later on.

An extra critisation of the study is that some questioned on the validity of the study in questioning the cupboard love theory, with whether if baby rhesus monkeys can present human infants.

Despite the criticise the study received,  some argued back that using Animals is the only possible way for investigation. It is almost impossibly legal and very unethical to put through human infants in the same my condition. The study by Harlow provide us a good evidence to suggest the commonly agreed cupboard love theory is not true.


Harry F. Harlow (1958) American Psychologist13, 673-685


About eugenekitfung

An undergraduate student in Bangor University who lives in Normal Site. NORMAL SITE, TRA LA LA LA!

5 responses »

  1. The concept of understanding love and its effects is really interesting but also it is significantly challenging because the effects are hard to quantify and consequently measure. So any research on this has to face this hardship.However i think that Harlows study has many obvious pitfalls too it . It could be argued that the two conditions which were used did not represent a mother figure to the infant monkeys:the terry cloth surrogate mother and the wire surrogate mother who dispensed milk would not have smelt like mother monkeys or looked like monkeys.So really what is being measured here ,because if the infants didn’t view the surrogate mothers as mothers could it be a coincidence that the infants were more inclined towards the cloth ‘monkey’,this has a knock on effect for the conclusions which were drawn from this and have influenced our understanding of child development.

  2. racewinner says:

    As you mentioned, Harlow took the baby monkeys away from their mothers to conduct his experiment. Though this was done to allow there to be as little factors as possible that may affect the results, I feel that that was extremely unethical to do. This would be due to these infants that underwent this experiment having many problems later in life. Some of these problems include the stereotypical behavior for aggression, rocking to and forth constantly and not having normal sexual behaviors where the females ignored the mates whereas the males found it hard to copulate with normal females. (Schultheis. E, 1999) Moreover, this emotionless upbringing led on to the next generation of monkeys born whereas the young did not form any attachment with their parents as the original experimenter monkeys did not do anything to their young. (Schultheis. E, 1999) As such, I feel that this experiment is extremely unethical especially as it led to problems for the future generations of monkeys born to the first participants. Moreover, as you mentioned, the big question here would be whether the baby monkeys can be compared to human infants. This can be seen from the relations supposedly drawn between animals and humans when testing drugs to see if they work, causing loss of life to many animals whereas even when the drugs were tested on humans later, the drugs did not manage to work, thus wasting precious life. (PETA, 2011) Therefore, I feel that more considerations should be taken before conducting any such studies in future.

    PETA (2011). Animal Testing Is Bad Science: Point/Counterpoint. Retrieved from http://www.peta. org/issues/animals-used-for-experimentation/animal-testing-bad-science.aspx
    Schultheis, E. (1999) Harry F. Harlow. Retrieved from http://www.muskingum. edu/~psych/psycweb/history/harlow.htm

    Tracy Yang

  3. smclarke says:

    The cupboard love theory was the nickname for learning theory and I thought this saw attatchment as a result of operant and classical conditioning. I’m confused by your explanation of the operant theory… The classical one is that the child cries and is fed by the mother and after several pairings makes an association between the mother and food, and therefore becomes secondarily attatched to the mother. Operant is that the child cries and is rewarded primarily by being fed and gets negative reinforcement by taking bad hunger away. The mother’s feeding behaviour is reinforced because the crying stops and she is happy seeing a contented baby, thus attatchment. Harlow’s study blows this completely as the monkeys went for the mother not with food, but comfort. Though as with all animal studies, generalisation to humans is questionable. Attatchments in species is different, as Lorenz (1973) found ducks imprint straight onto the first moving thing they see when they are born.

  4. csg3bu says:

    With the amount of criticism going against the findings of Harlow’s study do the ends really justify the means? As has already been said the findings (having come from rhesus monkeys) may not be generalisable back to human infants and the controlled laboratory situation (while showing a cause and effect relationship through operalisation of the independent variable) does not depict a real situation or even a real rhesus monkey mother. This means the results are also lacking in validity as well as any possibility to test the study for reliability because it is completely unethical. With many criticisms stacked against the results the fact that the monkeys suffered severe psychological trauma, to the extent where they were unsure on how to socialise with others of their kind, seems unethical to the point where it cannot be justified by the results.

  5. This is a really good blog, the concept of the cupboard-love theory is fascination and research could potentially lead to further understanding of child development. I agree that to put a human baby through is process would be entirely unethical, however I also think that in terms of whether the end justifies the means, it was also unethical to interfere with a baby rhesus monkey’s development at such an important stage in its life, especially seeing as we can not be certain that these results would be the same when applied to humans if reflected at all in a human baby’s behavior if we were to conduct the same experiment. So despite the fact that Harlowe did provide us with evidence, although not particularly reliable to contradict the widely accepted cupboard-love theory, in the end since we can not make generalizations to the human population or repeat the experiment using humans, it seems the results do not justify the psychological trauma that the monkeys endured.

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