Psychology has advanced leaps and bounds because of Harry Harlow, famed doctor, and probable sociopath.
Harlow worked in the early to middle twentieth century, conducting experiments focused on isolation. At the time, it was believed that mothers should avoid touching their babies when not feeding. No cuddles, coddles, or hugs. Rather than test these new theories on actual human babies, Harlow’s subjects were small monkeys (rhesus macaques, specifically). A close enough relative to us. These experiments were meant to determine the nature of love.
He did this by showing the exact opposite of love… and it worked brilliantly.
Harlow’s first experiments used monkeys that had been isolated from their mothers shortly after birth. In place of the real mother, two surrogates were provided to the monkeys. One was a wire mother, with a bottle of food attached. The other mother was cloth, much softer and far gentler than the cold wire mother.
Which would the monkey value more, food or comfort? Harlow hypothesized that without the touch of a real mother, the monkey would form an attachment to the cozy cloth mother; Harlow’s hypothesis was correct. The monkeys preferred the cloth mother, spending around 16 hours a day on it, only making brief trips to the wire mother for food.
Every source I’ve found online says that Harlow should’ve stopped here- he’d already learned enough, and could publish his research without doing any more harm to the monkeys. I disagree, and luckily for me, Harlow disagreed as well. His research continued.
Perhaps the monkey’s only sat with the cloth mother solely because of comfort. There was no indication that in a life-or-death scenario, the monkey would prefer one mother over the other… until Harlow made one.
Harlow built a machine to activate the monkey’s sympathetic nervous system, triggering a fight-or-fight reflex. It may be the funniest thing science has ever created. Here’s some ACTUAL footage of the device.
The idea of a scientist with a PhD sitting down and constructing… that is one of the reason’s I’ll defend Harlow until the day I die. He obviously knew what he was doing wasn’t exactly good, but he was willing to go as far as he needed to advance scientific understanding.
“…whatever our personal feelings may be, our assigned mission as psychologists is to analyze all facets of human and animal behavior…”
-Dr. Harry Harlow, noted primate abuser
The term “lawful evil” comes from Dungeons and Dragons. A lawful evil person will follow the rules, but without mercy for those swept in the wake- doing undeniably bad things, but with a code of honor and always within the law. What Harlow did was literal torture- but he wasn’t wrong to do it. He felt compelled to do what he could to teach us more, and his research has been instrumental in modern parenting.
Sure, he was probably also a sociopath. He always did seem to lack empathy, but not having empathy doesn’t inherently make him a bad person. His work hurt monkeys, but ensured that human babies could receive the best possible care.
Here’s a link to a fantastic article by Dr. Harlow. If you won’t take my word for it, the opening paragraph lays a detailed structure on why he knows he has to pursue this research. I’ll end the article with a thank you to Dr. Harry Harlow, friend to babies, enemy of monkeys.
Harry Harlow, The Lawful Evil Doctor.
Harry Harlow scarred monkeys for life, and Jeff Vernier scars his Twitter followers in similar ways daily.