Getting attached…

This week I re-watched some footage from a classic experiment on attachment carried out by Harry Harlow.

Harlow built two fake ‘monkey mums’, one covered in soft terry towelling material, the other made only of wire. He put baby monkeys, separated from their real mothers, into an enclosure where both of the models sat.  He fixed a bottle of milk to the wire mother, so that babies would need to sit on the wire monkey to meet their basic need for food. The baby monkeys spent most of their time sitting on and cuddling the monkey covered in soft cloth, and only left it for short periods of time in order to feed from the wire mother’s bottle.  The monkeys’ need to be near something that felt as much like the actual mother as possible was just as great as its need for food.

You can see the monkey’s preference for the soft model mother monkey, despite it going to the uncomfortable wire model for milk. This elegant, but cruel, paradigm showed how primary the needs of affection are. This research would never get past ethics now, and the macaque monkeys involved at the time ended up really disturbed.

We talk about getting attached, to things, to people, to places. But the psychological definition of attachment is very specific and the animal research done by people like Harlow helped us reach our understanding of how important it is.

John Bowlby, who first conceptualised attachment, defined it as “an innate primary drive to maintain proximity to the caregiver”. This idea was radical at the time: the idea that infant humans seek to be near their main caregiver as a primary goal, in and of itself, not secondary to physical needs of food and shelter. Before Bowlby wrote about attachment, people thought that the main needs of infants were related to the more basic functions of not being hungry, tired or cold. We now understand that infants have emotional needs related to what psychologist Mary Ainsworth called “an affectional tie that one person or animal forms between himself and another specific one – a tie that binds them together in space and endures over time”. The quality of this attachment relationship with our primary caregiver when we are children sets us up in many ways for later relationships, including romantic ones.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s