Experimental studies in psychological science serve as the foundation for understanding individual and societal problems. Indeed, research in this field helped learn potential reasons for social withdrawal and abnormal attachment patterns in adult people. For example, Bowlby explained monkeys’ behavior in Harlow’s experiments by the need for “a continuous relationship with a sensitive caregiver” (Van Rosmalen, Van der Veer, and van der Horst, 2020, p. 228). Moreover, the works of psychologists allowed to classify mental illnesses to formulate better therapeutic approaches for different psychopathologies. Harlow’s, Skinner’s, and Rosenhan’s, made a significant contribution to comprehending and resolving various issues of human nature, making society more tolerant to some behaviors that started to be treated rather than punished.
Harlow’s experiments with monkeys were essential for formulating some aspects of attachment theory. His study aimed to understand how newborn monkeys make preferences when selecting between different surrogate mothers (Van Rosmalen, Van der Veer, and van der Horst, 2020). Harlow exposed infant monkeys to a “feeding cold wire mother” and “non-feeding cloth mother,” observing that they spent more time with the latter (Van Rosmalen, Van der Veer, and Van der Horst, 2020, p. 228). Although monkeys went to the cold mother to receive nutrition, they immediately returned to the soft alternative as soon as they were sated. After conducting this experiment, Harlow published his most famous work about love’s nature (Van Rosmalen, Van der Veer, and van der Horst, 2020). Indeed, this research was the first scientific approach to understanding the essence of bonding between children and their caregivers. Furthermore, this study demonstrated that love and comfort are more critical for newborns than physiological demands.
The criticism of Harlow’s experiment was that it severely affected the development of the animals involved in this study. Specifically, these monkeys were found to grow into hostile adults, proving that soft toys were insufficient for normal development (Gross, 2009). In fact, animals that were removed from their mothers were challenging to handle, expressed inappropriate sexual behavior to their counterparts, or did not interact with them entirely (Gross, 2009). Moreover, the subsequent research on human infants showed that children were attached to people who responded and talked to them rather than those who did feeding and bathing (Gross, 2009). Overall, Harlow’s research was crucial for revealing the importance of physical and emotional expressions of love for children.
Rosenhan was interested in this research because of the lack of clarity differentiating between sane and insane people. This study aimed to learn if pseudo-patients would be admitted to the psychiatric organizations and actual patients would be rejected if hospitals were informed that the latter was faking symptoms (Gross, 2008). The experimental design involved eight participants, including Rosenhan himself, who went to twelve different hospitals and complained of hearing voices (Gross, 2008). In fact, experimenters had to fake this symptom, their names, and occupation. However, they told the truth about their life’s history, relationships with people, and other experiences. Nevertheless, all of them were admitted to psychiatric wards and spent some time inside, behaving as healthy individuals. The study’s outcome was that in 11 out of 12 cases, pseudo-patients were diagnosed with schizophrenia, and doctors never recognized the fraud (Gross, 2008). Notably, many patients in these healthcare organizations suspected that researchers did not have a psychiatric illness (Gross, 2008). It appears that clinicians are prone to bias in detecting a disease in a healthy person; thus, this potential error should be considered during patient evaluation.
The second part of Rosenhan’s experiment strived to explore whether patients with authentic symptoms were recognized as malingering. The researchers informed the staff of the psychiatric organization “that at some time during the next three months, one or more pseudo-patients would try to gain admission” (Gross, 2008, p. 368). Although all 193 patients had genuine symptoms, 41 patients were suspected to be fake by at least one clinician (Gross, 2008). Furthermore, 23 were rated as fraudulent by two or more psychiatrists, and 19 were recognized as not real by one psychiatrist and another staff member (Gross, 2008). It indicated flaws in diagnostic criteria of mental illnesses, showing that doctors do not always accurately assess patients. These experiments were conducted in 1973, and guidelines were revised, but the problem of “subjective interpretation” remains (Gross, 2008, p. 372). However, the validity of this research was questioned by other scientists who argued that the terms utilized by Rosenhan were more related to law than psychiatry (Gross, 2008). Still, Rosenhan did not claim that psychiatrists were incapable of diagnosing patients correctly. Instead, he wanted to show that physicians might be biased in their work.
Skinner’s experiments are considered to be instrumental to understanding operant conditioning. Skinner developed his methodologies based on Thorndike’s theories of learning pleasant and unpleasant effects of particular behaviors (McLeod, 2018). His studies aimed to explore if animals placed in a box could learn to differentiate between neutral, rewarding, and punishing stimulants (McLeod, 2018). Animals used for this purpose were pigeons and rats placed in a “Skinner box” with levers and keys to receive food or electric shock (McLeod, 2018). These experiments allowed the introduction of such concepts as positive and negative reinforcement, which are repeating a behavior due to pleasurable consequences and performing an activity to remove adverse outcomes, respectively (McLeod, 2018). Furthermore, it was determined that learned behavior could go extinct if the reinforcement stimuli were not repeated for an extended period. This study was crucial for developing methods to modify human behavior. In fact, specific reinforcers can be implemented to shape people’s actions into a desired conduct under particular circumstances (McLeod, 2018). Indeed, his theory was supported experimentally in rodent and avian studies.
Even though psychologists widely supported Skinner’s operant conditioning ideas, some criticized his ideas for incompleteness and a single-minded approach. Specifically, Albert Bandura stated that conditioned learning is insufficient to explain people’s motives and behaviors (Gross, 2008). Instead, the opponents of operant conditioning theory proposed that “learning cannot be explained properly without attributing cognitive processes to the learner” (Gross, 2008, p. 265). The alternative to Skinner’s model was observational learning, which implied that one acquires skills by watching others and repeating that behavior without external reinforcement (Gross, 2008). Operant conditioning was found helpful in altering behavioral patterns of psychiatric patients and prisoners (McLeod, 2018). Still, researchers should remain skeptical about transferring results of animal studies to humans.
The Implication for Society
These three experiments seem to alter society, making it more humane and attentive to psychiatric issues. For instance, Rosenhan’s study made the creators of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders critical about developing the classification (Cummins, 2020). This study was possible due to the 1946 Mental Health Act, which strived to conduct a “nationwide analysis and reevaluation of the human and economic problems of mental health” (National Institute of Health, 2021, para. 9). Moreover, his experiment revealed the unpleasant conditions of psychiatric wards, which laid the foundation for the GREEN campaign (Rice, 2018). This movement has supporters in more than 100 countries, and it conducts annual events to increase awareness about psychiatric patients with a yearly reach of about 400,000 people (Green Ribbon, 2018). Notably, the 1983s Mental Health Act is the main policy “that covers the assessment, treatment, and rights of people with a mental health disorder” (NHS, 2019, para. 3). Indeed, this movement increased awareness of mental illnesses and cultivated compassion for these patients in society.
Harlow’s and Skinner’s experiments were essential for introducing the notions of affection and bonding in child care and shaping behavior, respectively. Thanks to Harlow’s studies, many people worldwide now know that the consequences of not expressing love to infants may be severe (Gross, 2009). Hence, establishing an affectionate connection between parents and infants became critical to raising physically and emotionally healthy children (Van Rosmalen, Van der Veer, and van der Horst, 2020). Skinner’s experiments were valuable for millions of teachers in schools and officers in prisons to improve the habits and behaviors of children and inmates, respectively. Nevertheless, these studies violated the 1935s Protection of Animals Act enforced by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Whitfort et al., 2021). Thus, it demanded reviewing the legislation and replacing it with the 2006s Animal Welfare Act, which increased penalties for expressing animal cruelty (Whitfort et al., 2021). Harlow’s and Skinner’s studies were instrumental in showing scientific society the importance of introducing ethical regulations in animal experiments.
In summary, Harlow’s, Skinner’s, and Rosenhan’s studies made an essential contribution to understanding human behavior. Harlow’s rhesus monkey experiments demonstrated that children become attached to their caregivers not because of feeding but due to receiving responses, affection, and emotional comfort. Rosenhan’s experiment was crucial to expose biases that exist among doctors who tend to diagnose a healthy person with a psychiatric condition. Skinner’s theory about operant conditioning was critical for developing teaching methods in schools, psychiatric institutions, and prisons. These three studies laid the foundation for future research about human cognition and conduct.
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Gross, R. (2008) Key studies in psychology. 5th edn. London: Hodder Education.
Gross, R. (2009) Psychology. The science of mind and behavior. 5th edn. London: Hodder Arnold.
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National Institute of Health (2021) National institute of mental health (NIMH). Web.
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Rice, K.E. (2018) On being sane in insane places. Web.
Van Rosmalen, L., Van der Veer, R. and van der Horst, F.C. (2020) ‘The nature of love: Harlow, Bowlby and Bettelheim on affectionless mothers’, History of Psychiatry, 31(2), pp. 227-231. Web.
Whitfort, A. et al. (2021) ‘A retrospective analysis of typologies of animal abuse recorded by the SPCA, Hong Kong’, Animals, 11(6), pp. 1-13.