Harlow’s Pit of Despair

ABC Radio National’s Artworks programme interviews two creators of a new play about the mind and motivations of psychologist and serial monkey abuser Harry Harlow.

Harlow was a fascinating and troubled fellow who completed some of the most notorious studies in psychology where he raised monkeys apart from their mothers, most famously with ‘wire cage’ substitutes of various kinds.

He found that infant monkeys preferred to hang on to a wire cage ‘mother’ surrounded by cloth regardless of whether it provided food or not, suggesting to Harlow that comfort was of prime importance.

Over time his studies evolved and became increasingly cruel, until even those closest to his work felt he had gone too far.

The maternal deprivation studies are widely cited but they really told us little except the obvious fact that early relationships are important. This was widely promoted by the Neo-Freudians who felt Freud’s focus on infant sexuality was clearly missing the mark and had already been confirmed by extensive studies in children from deprived families conducted by London’s Tavistock Clinic years before.

More interesting, however, is Harlow himself – a man who was frequently depressed and estranged from his own mother, and the play deals with the psychology of this complex character.

The play is on in Melbourne, Australia but the discussion is also fascinating as the creators have clearly thought a great deal about the ethics of the research and Harlow’s own motivations.

Link to discussion on Artworks.
Link to more information about the play.

4 thoughts on “Harlow’s Pit of Despair”

  1. I shall feel compelled to read the play, but I hate the thought of anyone sparing a thought for this sadistic bugger. If he was such a monster as a child, I’m not surprised he was estranged from his mother – like the appalling Hubel & Wiesel, Harlow should be retrospectively stripped of whatever academic qualifications he achieved.

  2. “The maternal deprivation studies are widely cited but they really told us little except the obvious fact that early relationships are important.”
    Was this obvious at the time?

  3. Now I see there is a lab in Wisconsin (I think) with a colony of macaques, named after this crazed sadist. What will we have next? The Dr. Mengele Children’s Hospital?

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