Contact Comfort

Harry Harlow, whose learning-to-learn experiments we reviewed in the earlier section on Comparative Psychology, set up one of the nation's best-equipped primate laboratories at the University of Wisconsin. There he did a famous series of experiments focused on contact comfort in babyhood (Harlow & Harlow, 1962).

Harlow raised rhesus monkeys from birth, and he found it was necessary to keep young monkeys separate from each other for health reasons. This separation began soon after birth, and he noticed that young monkeys deprived of contact with their mothers appeared to suffer mental distress. The babies became very attached to cheesecloth diapers in their cages, clinging onto them like security blankets.

What vision did Harlow have while on a champagne flight over Detroit?

As the story goes, Harlow was on a champagne flight over Detroit in 1957, wondering which would be more powerful, contact comfort or food. Suddenly he got the idea of providing the babies with a choice between two mothers, one of which would provide something soft to embrace, the other of which would provide milk. To make a cuddly mother, Harlow's assistants covered a wire frame with terrycloth. A second mother was identical to the first but had no terrycloth; it was just a wire frame with a built-in milk bottle and nipple. Harlow found that baby monkeys preferred the terrycloth mother, spending as little time as possible on the wire frame mother. Contact comfort was more important than food, except when the baby monkey was actually eating.

What finally made babies reject the Terrycloth mother?


A baby rhesus monkey clings to the terrycloth mother

Harlow found baby monkeys were very forgiving of their terrycloth mothers. One "mother" was designed to occasionally catapult the baby off, throwing it to the other side of the cage, but the babies always came back. Another had spikes beneath her terrycloth, but the babies put up with the pain. Only running cold water through tubes contained inside the terrycloth mother, making the body cold, made baby monkeys reject it and retreat to a corner of the cage.


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey