Creative Commons license icon

A famous experiment in anthropomorphism and psychology

Your rating: None Average: 4.3 (4 votes)

Harlow's monkey clinging to a terrycloth dollSorry to interrupt fun stories about comics and cartoons, but the Anthropomorphic Research Project story suggests some want to know what furryness means. Let me throw in a topic sharing an abstract concept with the fandom.

Anthropomorphism is often imagined from our human point of view (attaching human characteristics to something non-human). But the concept can exist apart from ourselves, when animals see themselves in objects. The way it works for them can reveal more about us.

Harry Harlow was a psychologist who experimented with monkeys. In the 1950's and 60's, he gave his subjects "surrogate" mothers built from different objects, to see how they would behave, and learn about care-giving and companionship in social and cognitive development. PBS says about his famous experiment:

He took infant monkeys away from their real mothers, giving them instead two artificial mothers, one model made of wire and the other made of cloth. The wire model was outfitted with a bottle to feed the baby monkey. But the babies rarely stayed with the wire model longer than it took to get the necessary food. They clearly preferred cuddling with the softer cloth model, especially if they were scared. (When the cloth model had the bottle, they didn't go to the wire model at all.)

Here's an image gallery that illustrates the concept of "anthropomorphism" in monkey terms. To understand the experiment as a powerful metaphor, this web art project/essay says a lot with few words: Chicken Wire Mother.

These animal experiments were meant to speak about people. The way monkeys gave special meaning to surrogate objects based on softness makes me think about why furryness resonates with people. It's tough to articulate in general terms, so I'll let you interpret it for yourself.

People who advocate for animal welfare can be accused of too much anthropomorphizing. For better or worse, Harry Harlow's experiments were seminal for provoking conversation about animal welfare:

Gene Sackett of the University of Washington in Seattle, who was one of Harlow's doctoral students, has stated that he believes the animal liberation movement in the U.S. was born as a result of Harlow's experiments.

I was reminded of the "Chicken Wire Mother" by a Reddit humor post about a prank-ish art work (mildly NSFW) – a bronze Mickey Mouse with a colossal boner. In a debate about artistic content, one commenter quipped: "It could just be furry porn". But bronze is cold and hard, not furry... and that's what led to this post.

Comments

Your rating: None Average: 4 (1 vote)

Thanks for making a few edits :)

Your rating: None Average: 3.3 (3 votes)

What's actually clear from Harlow's 'experiments' is that he had no empathy or compassion for Life. That's the only conclusion possible -- the rest is speculation and entertainment for a human mind.

Your rating: None

d2animal-testing

Furry Pariah

Your rating: None Average: 3.8 (5 votes)

It is not the task of a scientist to be empathic or compassionate, but to acquire knowledge through the scientific method.

Western society places a different value on the value of the life of monkeys today than fifty years ago. His experiments may have assisted in the case of animal rights, but that was not their goal, nor should they be judged on that basis.

Edit: That said, the whole pit of despair thing was pushing it. It seems more malicious than the Silver Spring case.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

Scientists do work to acquire knowledge but that must also be within the bounds of what is ethical. To work on humans or animals you have to apply to ethics committees and apparently the animal ethics committees are far more strict. Compassion and empathy is something that is valued when designing an experiment. Though you do mention that values back then were different, but it seems like there was scientific opposition to these experiments even at the time. It's things like this that led to the creation of ethics committees.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

Your rating: None

That is reasonable for those scientists who accept public funding. He who pays the piper calls the tune. However, if you buy your own island, fund your own lab, and can defend it against roving bands of armed eco-libertarians, I feel you should be able to perform whatever experiments you want.

Your rating: None

Should be able to in what sense? As in it would be possible? Should be able to as in someone should be able to act immorally? I think you'll find most people would agree that ethical considerations apply to everyone, regardless of where they get their money or whether they belong to a certain country.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

Your rating: None

Only those with the power to enforce their system of morals, and the will to do so, will have them enacted. If those wishing to do experiments acquire enough power of their own (or conversely, do their experiments in such a way that it is infeasible for them to be prevented), they will, de facto, be able to run them.

I do not subscribe to the concept that there are universal rights; these are merely "higher laws" enacted by groups of people to further their own interests. To put it another way: a "crime against humanity" is merely an act which a large enough group of people have decided is a crime and has the power to prosecute.

Do I agree with many of these "rights"? Yes, in the sense that I think that they are good laws. But that is all they are. Similarly, a system of ethics is a tool for groups or individuals to determine what their preferred laws should be.

Your rating: None

That's a bit disturbing. :/ You basically give complete power to whoever is strongest. Actually screws over most "rights," especially when the majority often oppose free expression, freedom of religion and sexual, racial and ethnic equality. You don't have a problem with the Taliban preventing women from being educated as long as no one can stop them?

I would agree that rights and such are all artificial constructs but I also would support them because they are a path to the sort of world I would want to live in. I don't know if you're familiar with the idea but there's a saying somewhere that you should try design the rules in a way that you'd be happy living in that society regardless of your position. The way you have it now it'd be fine if you're in charge but terrible if you're at the bottom, and there's always the chance of losing your position.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

Your rating: None Average: 3 (1 vote)

I don't grant that power; I simply recognize that they have it. The Western world also has power and uses it to enforce laws based on their own ethical beliefs within its sphere of influence.

I believe you're thinking of Kant's formula of universal law. Where I think Kant breaks down is his insistence that rational actors treat others as equals. As I see it, those "at the bottom" are not owed anything (in the sense of a moral imperative to treat them as an end, rather than a means to an end). However, it may benefit of the community as a whole (and myself) to aid them - plagues are bad, as is an unproductive workforce. I support universal healthcare on this basis, not out of fear that I may need it.

Over time, the best laws (those which result in the strongest groups) will prevail, just as the best genes prevail. The Taliban position will probably evolve – or they will ultimately fail – since wasting the intellectual capital of half of your population is inefficient. That's getting rather offtopic, though.

Your rating: None

"What's actually clear from Harlow's 'experiments' is that he had no empathy or compassion for Life. That's the only conclusion possible -- the rest is speculation and entertainment for a human mind."

Good point that cruelty is one conclusion about the experimenter and society that encouraged it. (Why should there only be one conclusion?) I left it up to the reader to think about, but I really liked what the "Chicken Wire Mother" art essay said about it (the reason I shared it.)

Honestly I also didn't go there since I'm not well enough read about animal rights. If this was longer, I could have asked if it inspired Richard Adams and his books like the Plague Dogs (great book).

The nazis did horrific medical research on humans. It has the same reputation today as everything else they did, something that should never be repeated. At the same time, if science can learn from it to help save people, it isn't treated as something to ignore just because it was evil.

Your rating: None Average: 1 (2 votes)

While I do like seeing more science here I'm not sure if you're just forcing a point. The PBS summary says nothing about anthropomorphism. Neither does the Wikipedia entry. You're stretching the experiment past what it can actually tell you if you start talking about the monkeys giving the models special meanings or anthropomorphising. Always go with the simpler explanation. Cuddling a wire model is not as comfortable as cuddling a cloth model. I don't have to anthropomrphise chairs to tell you I'm going to sit on the most comfortable one available unless the other satisfies some other need.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

Your rating: None Average: 4 (3 votes)

Actually the experiment wasn't about which was more comfortable, but how having a warm and comfortable parental figure changes the development of children. When exposed to fearful stimuli, the monkeys with no soft mothers present coward in the corner, while those with the mothers got over their fear easier since they thought the mother would provide protection. The experiment also showed the monkey's who were solely raised on wire mothers had more digestive trouble, which meant they were stressed out. In short, the monkeys cling to the soft mother because the contact brought emotional comfort and safety.

What the OP is referring to is how animals can, in a way, be the soft mother. Not to the extent in the experiment of course, but friendly pets are a huge stress reliever when you cuddle them, and by anthropomorphizing pets we feel closer to them. It's the same thing when a child gets attached to a stuffed toy, and how they will go berserk when they lose it.

The OP's point was a bit of a stretch, but I can still see their point.

Your rating: None Average: 2 (1 vote)

Thanks :) I realized it was a bit of a stretch to bring here, it's just interesting by itself. And the topic makes me want to read more about animal rights with a furry fandom connection (this site is named from a book that has it.)

Your rating: None Average: 1 (2 votes)

What you describe and what's in this article are not even close. The OP makes no mention about development or the intended outcome of the study. Even if he did though it doesn't change that them preferring comfort is a more parsimonious explanation, regardless of the end-point. From the limited data here I don't see how you can say the soft mother brought comfort and safety over just comfort.

"If all mankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, mankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than he, if he had the power, would be justified in silencing mankind."
~John Stuart Mill~

Your rating: None Average: 3.8 (4 votes)

Are you just missing something? The OP didn't intend to bring up the original purpose of the study. They were just making an argument for another conclusion they saw in the experiment. They're not a scientist, so I don't see why they can't just ponder this idea and ask others for their thoughts.

If the mother just brought comfort then monkeys raised on the wire mother should have just been as healthy as the ones with soft mothers, but they weren't. Humans and primates need contact with others in early childhood to develop correctly, and having someone to keep you safe is part of that. I don't know what your childhood was like, but whenever I got scarred I would stay close to my stuffed animals and go to mother for comfort, and she would reassure me that everything was fine. Even just observing children will tell you they feel more safe with comfortable objects and people.

To put it more simply, comfort = a good feeling = everything is right = safety or sense of safety.

Your rating: None Average: 1.5 (2 votes)

We can learn from this comment is that reading a Wikipedia link or skimming a summary isn't a substitute for thinking. Yes, they don't mention a lot of things that relate to a topic.

Your rating: None Average: 4.5 (2 votes)

For anyone interested in the Harlow experiments, I highly recommend "Touching: Human Significance of Skin" by Ashley Montagu. The first chapter or so goes into details about the Harlow experiments and how they tied in with similar research on orphanages. Primates (humans included) actually need a fair amount of skin stimulus to continue to develop correctly during the first year. Orphanages provided anecdotal evidence of what types of deficits would develop, but the Harlow experiments gave more detailed scientific data on exactly what sort of things went wrong developmentally, and when, if infants were deprived of interaction.

Much of that data was used to overhaul how orphanages and neonatal units operated. If you've ever seen info about neonatal units making sure parents (or volunteers) spend time everyday snuggling very, very sick or premature babies, THAT research is why. That stimulation of the body's largest organ, and largest SENSORY organ, helps regulate development and if infants and children aren't getting enough of it, they will try and get the necessary stimulation. Those infants need to FEEL as much as they need to hear or see to develop correctly.

The whole book is filled with really interesting information about development and all the feedback systems built into the human body to regulate development and even just to regulate day to day functions of the body. But man, that first chunk of the book is heartbreaking to read... They get referred back to frequently through rest of book. Overall, highly recommended for anyone that works with children or is thinking of becoming a parent.

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <img> <b> <i> <s> <blockquote> <ul> <ol> <li> <table> <tr> <td> <th> <sub> <sup> <object> <embed> <h1> <h2> <h3> <h4> <h5> <h6> <dl> <dt> <dd> <param> <center> <strong> <q> <cite> <code> <em>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

CAPTCHA
This test is to prevent automated spam submissions.
Leave empty.

About the author

Patch Packratread storiescontact (login required)

On-the-scene reporter
Animator, teacher and business owner
Road biker and fursuiter
Unconditional hugger

I support creators, dreamers, individualists, and anything fabulous and furry. Expect assertive stories with bold claims and jaunty opinions. I call fursuiting "the theatrical soul of furriness" and it's most original product, that liberates expression by playing with identity and absurdity. Street fursuiting is where the magic is.

"Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."
- Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist (1904)

“The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue ...”
- Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976)

"All the World's a stage" comes from the melancholy Jacques in Shakespeare's play As You Like It. It is a sigh of lament at life's meaninglessness. Can the experience of children suggest, on the contrary, that the play of existence is precisely what makes life meaningful?"
- John Wall, theoretical ethicist (2011)

Page traffic