The Love Wars—Harry Harlow and the All Night Comfort Food Café (part I)

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You’re a medical director. Your shift is almost over as you slip into your desk chair for a quick respite. You spin around to look out the window. It’s snowing. There’s a layer of fluffy snow covering the ground. As you gaze upon this blanket of virgin snow you crack a slight smile. You’re filled with feelings of hope and optimism. Your gaze catches the wall calendar out of the corner of your eye. Your smile broadens as you make the connection that the arrival of white, clean, even sterile snow might be a harbinger of things to come—the dawning of a new scientific age. For you see, it’s December, 1899, a time when the arc lamp was giving way to the filament bulb, horse and carriage to the automobile, and telegram to wireless radio.

There’s a knock at your door. All of your hope and optimism quickly fades. These knocks often bring the same tragic news you have heard many times before. Another foundling has died. You gain comfort by reminding yourself that at least at your facility the infant mortality rate hovers around 75 percent. At other foundling homes you know of, the infant mortality rate approaches 100 percent. Regardless, you know full well that these sky-high infant mortality rates are unacceptable. And there’s growing pressure from politicians and the public to do something about this horrible situation. You think to yourself, “I really do hope that twentieth century medical science can swoop in and save the day.”

OK, I made up the above melodrama. What I did not make up were the statistics. These statistics come from science journalist Deborah Blum’s 2002 book entitled Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. Indeed, at the beginning of the last century infant mortality rates at foundling homes (orphanages) were as high as 100 percent. “The frustrating, impossible, terrible thing about orphanages could be summarized like this: They were baby killers,” as Blum shockingly reveals. Politicians and the public were aghast. They demanded that these death rates be brought down and quickly. In my opinion, thus began what I am calling The Love Wars, wars that featured such combatants as John B. Watson, B.F. Skinner, Harry Harlow, and John Bowlby. In the next two blog posts I’d like to take a bird’s eye view of The Love Wars using the information that Blum presents as a backdrop.

The first theory that medical doctors came up with to explain what was happening at foundling homes centered on disease. Doctors argued that it was disease and infection that were killing infants at such alarming rates. The response was to create disease-free environments in which to house infants. In essence, infants were put into sterile cubicles cutoff from contact with the world, especially the world of human touch and comfort. Doctors in effect created Skinner baby-tenders if you will. More on Skinner baby-tenders in a moment.

This disease theory fit the times. At the turn of the last century there was a hyper focus on cleanliness and hygiene. There was growing fear that immigrants pouring into the country would bring with them devastating diseases. Thus began the hygiene movement. As Wendy Kline points out in her 2001 book entitled Building a Better Race: Gender, Sexuality, and Eugenics From the Turn of the Century to the Baby Boom, there was a close relationship between the hygiene movement and eugenics. Interestingly, birth control was a big part of the hygiene movement which, in turn, was a big part of eugenics efforts. Suffice it to say that the precepts of the hygiene movement were used in an attempt to reduce infant mortality rates at foundling homes. According to this hygiene model, the best way to love and care for infants was to make them and their surroundings as sterile and clean as possible.

Not long after the precepts of the hygiene movement were used at foundling homes, John B. Watson developed behavioral theory (mainly in the 1920s and 30s). According to Blum, Watson used the work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov as a backdrop. Pavlov showed that a dog could be conditioned to the presence of a stimulus, say, ringing a bell while being presented with a bowl of food. Once conditioned, all one had to do was ring the bell and the dog would salivate in anticipation of a tasty meal. Watson built on this idea by simply suggesting that all of psychology could be looked at as chains of Stimulus and Response. Suffice it to say that Watson was against anything smacking of love. “Watson is often remembered today as the scientist who led a professional crusade against the evils of affection,” writes Blum. In 1928 Watson released his influential book entitled Psychological Care of Infant and Child.

Watson’s most famous student, B.F. Skinner, greatly extended his mentor’s ideas. Skinner also adopted an anti-love stance. Skinner (working around the time of WWII) created what he called the Skinner box. These boxes had levers in them that rats would push in order to get a treat (a positive reinforcement) or escape from a shock (a negative reinforcement). Skinner put forth the idea that all behavior could be molded by simply using either positive or negative reinforcement. Skinner so believed in his theory that he built a box for his daughter. Here’s how Blum describes Skinner’s baby-tender (mentioned above):

B.F. Skinner was now experimenting with boxes in which to raise young children. Skinner had built the first demonstration model for his young daughter, Debbie. It was a crib-sized “living space”—a baby-tender, Skinner called it, with sound-absorbing walls, a large window, and a canvas floor. … [Skinner] hoped that every mother would one day use a baby-tender.

Skinner viewed his baby-tender as a time saving appliance, not unlike a vacuum or washing machine. He imagined that his baby-tender would save mothers countless amounts of time, energy and caregiving labor. According to Blum, Skinner was perplexed when a well-meaning pediatrician suggested that mothers would reject his baby-tender. Blum quotes this pediatrician when she says, “Mothers [do not] care so much about saved labor…. Mothers [labor] out of love.” Here we see a line in the sand. On one side, scientists were trying mightily to liberate mothers from the drudgery of raising children. (Keep this in mind as I talk about liberation psychology in part II.) On the other, scientists were trying to extol the virtues of mothers who labored tireless as they provided care to their children. On one side, scientists were trying to sell mothers on time-saving appliances like baby-tenders (and later baby formula and disposable diapers). On the other, scientists were trying to dredge up evidence that suggested that mothers should work for free at the All Night Comfort Food Café. [1]

The ideas of conditioning, reinforcement, and Stimulus and Response led to one of the most incendiary ideas to come out of the anti-love movement: Behaviorists believed that young children only sought the comfort of caregivers because, early on, they formed a conditioned association between caregiver and food. According to behaviorists, children only prefer the company of caregivers, especially mother and her breast, because caregivers provide food. It is this central idea of behaviorists that attachment researchers, like John Bowlby and Harry Harlow, would fight against mightily.

So, did the practices and procedures of the anti-love movement work? Yes. Resoundingly yes. According to Blum’s research, infant mortality rates dropped from near 100 percent in some cases down to rates hovering around 30 percent. “Oh, they were definitely saving children,” announces Blum. She continues, “In 1931, [physician William] Brenneman reported that his hospital in Chicago was averaging about 30 percent mortality in the children’s ward rather than 100 percent.” That’s impressive by anyone’s standard. But not all was well along the anti-love front. Apparently the commingling of such trends as hygiene, eugenics, and behaviorism was creating an anti-love front that could wreak havoc on the child development landscape. Here’s how Blum describes this united front:

Medicine reinforced psychology; psychology supported medicine. All of it, the lurking fears of infection, the saving graces of hygiene, the fears of ruining a child by affection, the selling of science, the desire of parents to learn from experts, all came together to create one of the chilliest possible periods in childrearing.

Sure, mortality rates had dropped to around 30 percent, a spectacular accomplishment. But it was what was happening to the kids in that 30 percent that troubled some not enamored with the anti-love camp. “Yet the youngest children, the most fragile, were still dying in the hospitals when they shouldn’t,” writes Blum. She continues, “They were coming in to those spotlessly hygienic rooms and inexplicably fading away.” A small band of love scientists such as René Spitz and James Robertson developed a new theory: the sterile environment devoid of human contact, of human love, was killing these children. Harry Bakwin, “a pediatrician at Bellevue in New York” during the 1930s coined the name “hospitalism” to describe what some were calling “the lonely-child syndrome” (quoting Blum). Spitz would go so far as to suggest that a lack of human contact and comfort “was destroying [a] child’s ability to fight infection” (quoting Blum).

In part II we’ll look at how love scientists assembled a force capable of going up against the anti-love front. Not to give things away but Blum points to the “natural experiment” (my quotes) of World War II as the turning point in the Love Wars. “In a curious way, it took a war to change things, and a major one at that, the last great global conflict, World War II,” writes Blum. She continues, “Perhaps a minor skirmish would never have shaken psychology’s confidence [in the anti-love stance] so well. It was an indirect effect of the war that actually started catching researchers’ attention.” It caught Bowlby’s attention. Thus began his efforts, along with colleagues like Donald Winnicott, to combat Britain’s World War II evacuation policies, a fight I have blogged about before. I’ll see you in part II.


[1] In his 1995 book entitled The End of Work—The Decline of the Global Labor Force and the Dawn of the Post-Market Era, business scholar and economist Jeremy Rifkin points out that liberal feminists tend to take a dim view of volunteerism. Why? Because, in their view, engaging in volunteerism is about providing free, unpaid labor. Liberal feminists tend to take this same view when it comes to stay-at-home mothering: It’s unpaid labor. Liberal feminists have gone to great lengths to get mothers out of homes and into the workplace. Daycare centers, pre-K programs, and schools now provide paid-for mothering. What’s interesting to note is where the lion’s share of free labor has moved: the Internet.

Writing in his 2016 book entitled The Inevitable, Kevin Kelly—Wired Magazine co-founder—tells us that “The entirety of the content offered by Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter is not created by their staff, but by their audience.” It would appear that providing free labor has become a way of life for an entire Millennial generation, both men and women. This may in part be a reaction to the End of Work that Rifkin predicted over twenty years ago. If there’s little to no paid-for work, free work becomes a way to fill time. In turn, filling time becomes a way of life. Looked at another way, the raw materials that make up the digital economy are pouring in by the bucketload, and … wait for it … for free! This would be like petroleum reserves transporting themselves quickly, orderly, and cleanly to refineries to be processed into usable fuels. Again, I’m amazed at where free labor has gone. And it would appear that free Internet labor raises nary an eyebrow probably because so many engage in it now—old and young alike. It has become like the air you breathe: it’s just there. As Kelly puts it, “Google turns traffic and link patterns generated by 90 billion searches a month into the organizing intelligence for a new economy.”

Why would so many people wish to work for free? Kelly offers up one possible answer: after decades of manufactured goods that you simple choose, people are taking pride in making things with their own hands. It’s a return to the days of handcrafted goods. It’s a return to the days of DIY: do it yourself. “What we all failed to see,” writes Kelly, “was how much of this brave new online world would be manufactured by users, not big institutions.” Go figure. Is a populist return to handcrafted children far behind? Or will handcrafting children—which carries with it an exorbitant price tag—be a luxury reserved for the wealthy as Robert Putnam suggests in his 2015 book entitled Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis.