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

Share this Blog post

Note: This post contains a lengthy review of the information presented in part I. If you have the information presented in part I firmly in mind, then by all means skip to the New Information heading below. If not then start here and enjoy this review.

Welcome to part II of my two-part blog series on what I am calling The Love Wars. As I described in part I, The Love Wars were born out of a desire to reduce infant mortality rates at foundling homes (orphanages) at the turn of the last century. According to the information science journalist Deborah Blum presents in her 2002 book entitled Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, infant mortality rates were as high as 100%. As you might expect, there were calls from politicians and the public alike to greatly reduce these infant mortality rates. The prevailing theory at the time was based on the idea that unsanitary conditions led to infection, which, in turn, caused infants to die. The response from the medical community was to create sterile cubicles in which to house infants. The response from the psychological community was to go a step further and remove love, affection, and human touch from these cubicles. Here’s how Blum sums up this commingling of professional and public sentiments at the turn of the last century:

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.

So, by the 1930s and 40s, the anti-love front of The Love Wars was firmly established and led in large part by first, behaviorist John B. Watson, and then later by one of his followers B.F. Skinner. “Watson is often remembered today as the scientist who led a professional crusade against the evils of affection,” writes Blum.

Did these new measures work? According to Blum, they did, often lowering infant mortality rates to about 30 percent. But it was what was happening to this 30 percent of infants that raised concern among a small band of love scientists that included Harry Harlow and John Bowlby. “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.” This small band of love scientists, which included René Spitz and James Robertson, developed a new theory: the sterile environment devoid of human contact, of human love, was killing these children. The big challenge facing love scientists was how to get medical experts, the public, and anti-love psychologists to buy their message that “love matters.”

According to Blum, it would take an actual war to turn the tide in The Love Wars: World War II. “Perhaps a minor skirmish would never have shaken psychology’s confidence [in the anti-love stance] so well,” writes Blum. She continues, “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.

(New Information)

Exactly what results did this “natural experiment” produce? “In England alone,” writes Blum, “more than 700,000 children were sent away from home, unsure whether they would see their parents again.” Even though most of the children were sent to loving caring homes, [1] psychologically, they were falling apart. Blum cites Austrian psychologist Katherine Wolf when she tells us that these kids became “listless [and] uninterested in their surroundings.” Blum continues,

They were even apathetic about hearing news from home. They became bed-wetters; they shook in the dark from nightmares and, in the day, they often seemed only half awake. Children wept for their parents and grieved for their missing families. In the night, when the darkness and the nightmares came calling, they didn’t want just anyone; they wanted their mothers. Nothing in [behavioral] psychology had predicted this: Wolf was describing affluent, well-cared-for children living in friendly homes. It was startlingly clear that they could be clean and well fed and disease free—you could invoke all of the gods of cleanliness and it didn’t matter—the children sickened, plagued by the kind of chronic infections doctors were used to seeing in hospital wards. It seemed that having good clean shelter really didn’t always keep you healthy.

What did these kids need? According to Bowlby’s theory, they needed more than just a clean, hygienic environment: they needed secure attachment. They needed love from a safe and secure primary attachment figure: mother. In the aftermath of WWII, the World Health Organization took the problem of children separated from their parents—whether by evacuation policy or by the ravages of war—very seriously. They asked John Bowlby to prepare a report, which he did. “In 1948, working for the World Health Organization, Bowlby took his stand [against the anti-love front], beginning with a report titled Maternal Care and Mental Health,” reveals Blum. As you would expect, the anti-love front pushed back asking, “Where’s the proof that kids need love?” The pro-love front needed more ammunition, they needed more proof. Enter Harry Harlow and his studies with primates, especially Rhesus monkeys. This is the central focus of Blum’s book Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. Thus began a close relationship between Harlow and Bowlby, which Blum covers briefly. For a more in-depth treatment, see the 2008 article “When Strangers Meet”: John Bowlby and Harry Harlow on Attachment Behavior by Frank van der Horst, Helen LeRoy, and René van der Veer (Integr Psych Behav, 42, p. 370–388). [2]

The Harry Harlow story is fascinating, filled with serendipity and necessity. According to Blum’s research, Harlow, along with graduate students such as Abraham Maslow (of hierarchy of needs fame), started out performing intelligence studies with primates. Rather than creating boxes that delivered treats or shocks (as was the custom of behaviorists), Harlow and his students created boxes that delivered puzzles. Harlow had his primate subjects work out all manner of puzzles. “Among the challenges they gave Jiggs [an ape Harlow worked with at a nearby zoo] was one familiar to many nursery school children: putting the right peg into the right hole,” describes Blum. Harlow was one of the pioneers in the study of intelligence in primates. What Harlow discovered is that primates love to solve puzzles and would do so for the sheer satisfaction. They would solve puzzles on their own without the enticement of treats. “The results [of these intelligence tests] reinforced a strong suspicion that curiosity [rather than conditioning] was fundamental to the way these … primates approached the world,” writes Blum.

The monkeys Harlow imported for his lab often arrived sick and in poor condition. Out of necessity, Harlow began raising his own monkeys. As a result Harlow and his students had to deal with raising infants. To keep the infants comfortable, they would put cloth diapers in their cages. What they observed fascinated them. When they would separate an infant from his mother, the infant would grab and hold on to the cloth diapers. Here’s how Blum describes this perplexing scene:

All the little monkeys … were absolutely, fanatically attached to those diapers; they not only hugged the diapers fiercely but also wrapped themselves in the white cloth, clutched at it desperately if someone picked them up. Around the lab, an observer might be struck by the appearance of baby monkeys in transit, cloth streaming out behind them like kite trails.

Serendipity pushed Harlow and his team in the direction of thinking about what exactly constitutes a mother figure for these monkeys. Harlow and his team designed all manner of substitute mothers: mothers made out chicken wire and cloth; mothers with soft-tipped brass spikes; mothers with strange faces; and even “monster mothers.” “One [mother] was a ‘shaking’ mother who rocked so violently that, Harry said, the teeth and bones of the infant chattered in unison,” writes Blum.

So, what did these mother substitute studies show? Let’s listen in as Blum describes the results:

[N]o experiment could have better demonstrated the depth and strength of a baby’s addiction [attachment] for her parent. Or how terrifyingly vulnerable that addiction makes a child. These little monkeys would be frightened away by brass spike mom—and yet it was she they turned to for comfort. They had to; she was what they had. Here indeed was further evidence of that haven-of-security [e.g., Ainsworth’s home base] effect, for better and for worse. It doesn’t always keep you safe. If your mother is your only source of comfort and your mother is evil, what choices are left you in seeking safe harbor? No choice except to keep trying to cast anchor in the only harbor available.

Here was empirical evidence for the presence of an attachment behavioral system, the same behavioral system that caused an infant to seek safety and comfort from mother beyond a mother’s role as food provider. More importantly, no amount of negative experiences (i.e., from shaking or spiked mothers) could condition an infant away from his mother. In essence, Bowlby had the empirical evidence he needed to support his attachment theory. Bowlby had the scientific evidence he needed to silence his naysayers. You would think that this would be the end to The Love Wars. Bowlby, Harlow and all the other love scientists had won … or so they thought. As Bob Dylan told us back in the 1960s, the times they are a changin’.

The story Blum tells quickly shifts focus. Almost overnight in the late 1960s and early 70s—with the rise of self psychology and the self-esteem movement—love scientists were no longer doing battle with behaviorists. They were now doing battle with feminists. Although Blum does not say one way or the other, I assume that feminists back then did not necessarily question the empirical data coming from love scientists like Harlow. Simply, they didn’t care about such data. In essence, feminists simply changed the frame of the battle. As I talk about in my book Bowlby’s Battle, feminists first framed The Love Wars using sociology and then later liberation or emancipation psychology (as mentioned in part I). Feminists took up a new offensive by rejecting Bowlby’s theorizing and Harlow’s experimentalism.

After the 1970s, it did not matter how much science either Harlow or Bowlby delivered up. Love science was rejected on sociological and then emancipatory grounds. Feminists were hellbent on liberating mothers from oppressive home environments typically dominated by men. Writing in her 1999 article entitled Why Is Attachment in the Air?, noted feminist psychoanalyst Susie Orbach tells us that “Feminist analysts first had a difficult time with what they perceived as Bowlby’s [scientific] valourisation of the maternal at a moment when we were trying to [sociologically] understand the relationship of women’s oppression to the structure of the nuclear family.” Orbach continues, “Bowlby’s [scientific] observation of the child’s need of the mother was just the kind of presumption that needed [postmodern] deconstructing.”

Feminists did not wish to employ labor savings devices like Skinner’s baby-tender (talked about in part I); they wished to be liberated wholesale from the whole baby-raising home environment. No longer would women work for free at the All Night Comfort Food Café. As Blum points out, feminists attacked Harlow viciously. Their attacks were vicious in large part because Harlow often baited feminists. Animal activists also attacked Harlow because of his substitute mother studies as well as studies he did designed to investigate the psychological effects of extended isolation. [4] Harlow had a “tin ear for political change,” Blum reveals. She continues, “That was obvious in the ways he baited feminists. As the animal rights movement took shape toward the end of his career, he baited those activists, too—without a thought to the consequences.”

Bowlby too was dogged by feminists (as the above Orbach quote points out). Rather than bait his detractors, Bowlby stayed close to what the data was saying. During a workshop back in 2005, Sir Richard (John’s son) told us that after his father developed attachment theory in the late 1950s, a critic wrote: “Why couldn’t John Bowlby come up with a theory of attachment more appropriate to the needs of modern parents?” Sir Richard told us that rather than formulate a theory of attachment “more appropriate to the needs of modern parents,” his father stayed true to what the data was telling him. In fact, according to Sir Richard, Bowlby suggested that modern political and business worlds should bend toward his theory by paying mothers for being mothers for three years after the birth of a child. Apparently Bowlby agreed with feminists: mothers should be paid for working at the All Night Comfort Food Café. The issue was not necessarily money; it was oppressive home environments and patriarchal rule.

Sad to say, both Harlow and Bowlby were defeated as The Love Wars moved from modern scientific fronts to postmodern sociological and emancipatory fronts. Today—according to Mary Eberstadt’s 2004 book—we live in Home-alone America where we use parent substitutes such as day care, behavioral drugs (like Ritalin and Adderall),  junk food, inappropriate sex, and even violent music that targets impressionable youth. Writing in her 2011 book entitled Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, MIT researcher Sherry Turkle extends Eberstadt’s list by adding all manner of screen devices. Kids are now addicted to their screen devices as primary attachment figures. Not even Harlow could have come up with such an insidious and monstrous form of substitute mother. But yet there she is. Almost every child now clings on to the substitute mother that would be screen technologies, and for dear life. Kids—some as young as three years of age—are casting “anchor in the only harbor available”—the digital realm where all of life is instant, changing, possible, dare I say, liberating. It’s no wonder kids are “listless,” “half awake” and largely “uninterested in their surroundings” (quotes by Blum). The Love Wars have been replaced by the attachment Twilight Zone.


I recently finished reading Kevin Kelly’s 2016 book entitled The Inevitable—Understanding the 12 Technological Forces that Will Shape Our Future. Kelly was co-founder of Wired Magazine. Suffice it to say that Kelly is an apologist for postmodernism. As talked about above, postmodernists are all about liberation, liberation from any and all constraints. Postmodernists tend to advocate for an “anything goes” approach to life. In his book Kelly talks about how the hypertext model (i.e., words containing links that move you to other words or pages on the Internet) will bring about liberation from the tyranny of the authoritarian author. (I found this ironic considering that Kelly wrote an authoritarian book.) This agrees with the information Nicholas Carr delivers in his 2010 book entitled The Shallows—What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. Carr writes the following concerning the advent of hypertext:

Freed from the lockstep reading demanded by printed pages, readers would make all sorts of new intellectual connections among diverse texts. The academic enthusiasm for hypertext [which started in the 1980s] was further kindled by the belief, in line with the fashionable postmodern theories of the day, that hypertext would overthrow the patriarchal authority of the author and shift power to the reader. It would be a technology of liberation [emphasis added].

Carr goes on to argue that the postmodern desire for liberation is but a pipe dream. Why? Well, ironically, Carr’s research shows that the Internet is eroding our ability to engage in the Executive Function (EF) skills of empathy, perspective-taking, and reflection. Without these key Executive Function skills, there can be no properly functioning democracy. As Bowlby suggested, secure attachment early in life is the foundation upon which robust EF skills rest. As more and more kids become addicted to screen devices in specific and the Internet in general, secure attachment will wane. Where goes secure attachment so too EF skills. So, rather than encouraging the development of critical thinking, hypertext, and the Internet that holds it, will erode our ability to engage in critical thinking.

Writing in his 2015 book entitled Confronting the Internet’s Dark Side—Moral and Social Responsibility On the Free Highway, Raphael Cohen-Almagor tells us that “the moral ideal of toleration does not require that we put up with anything and everything.” He continues thus: “[Philosopher Karl] Popper asserts that to allow freedom of speech to those who would use it to eliminate the very principle on which they rely is paradoxical.” Along these same lines, I would argue: To allow a technology—and in the name of liberation—to erode Executive Function skills, the very same cognitive skills required of any fully functioning democracy, is not only paradoxical but also a prescription for social and economic suicide. Sadly, that’s the paradox that now faces us. And, unlike Kelly, I do not feel that it is inevitable. Cohen-Almagor points to Aristotle’s Rule of the Golden Mean when he suggests that a “delicate balance should be maintained between measures taken to protect democracy while adhering to the underpinning liberal values.” Ergo, we should support Internet technologies to the degree that they do not erode such things as secure attachment and robust Executive Function skills, both of which are required for a fully functioning democratic society.


[1] Sadly, many children were sent to group homes run by religious organizations and subsequently abused physically and emotionally. This dark period is covered in more detail in an article the Foundation commissioned by Dr. Gary Metcalf entitled John Bowlby: Rediscovering a Systems Scientist. Contact the Foundation for a copy of this article.

[2] In 2011, van der Horst went on to write a book entitled John Bowlby: From Psychoanalysis to Ethology. He talks about the Harlow–Bowlby relationship in chapter five: From Theoretical Claims to Empirical Evidence: Harry Harlow and the Nature of Love.

[3] The full reference for the Orbach article is 1999, Psychoanal. Dial. v.9, p. 73–83. Orbach co-wrote the 1983 book WHAT DO WOMEN WANT?: Exploding the Myth of Dependency.

[4] Blum makes it clear that Harlow had a bad drinking problem. Harlow was also prone to fits of depression. It was after a particularly lengthy depression (maybe due to the death of his first wife) that Harlow thought to investigate what causes depression and what the effects might be. He designed what he called the “pit of despair”—effectively a cage made out of an inverted pyramid. Monkeys would desperately try to scramble up the sloped sides in an attempt to escape only to slide back down to the point where they once again would have to endure loneliness. Harlow thought this was a perfect model for depression, for his depression. It was these experiments in particular that riled animal activists according to Blum.