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 Psychologist, 13, 673-685