Theories of Attachment in Harlow’s 1958 Studies

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Experts and scientists have trying to determine whether the attachment is more of a biological or purely psychological process in the case of human beings. Indeed, the levels and varieties of attachment demonstrated by people are unparalleled among other species. Harry F. Harlow was one of the leading theorists of attachment in the 20th century. His experiments involving infant monkeys provided the cognitive psychology community with a better understanding of the origins of this feeling and informed further research. This paper discusses Harlow’s research in the context of its importance and relation to other theories of attachment.

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The most famous experiments in this area took place in the 1950s. Through this research, Harlow confirmed that infant monkeys need an object of attachment in order to develop normally across the first stages of life (Martin & Carlson, 2019). The author of the study separated infant monkeys from their parents and enabled access to two different surrogate mothers. In the first case, a mannequin was made of wire and provided nutrition. The second surrogate mother was made of comfortable cloth but gave no food at all. Subsequently, Harlow (1958) observed the behavior of the infant monkeys in terms of their affection for either surrogate. The study relied upon a theory according to which nutrition and other basic needs were the primary stimuli of affection and love in babies. However, it was observed that infants would only approach the wire mother for feeding. Once they ate, they returned to the cloth surrogate for physical comfort. Moreover, if a stressful situation was created in the cage, monkeys would approach the cloth mother for protection.

As such, the results of the experiment introduced a highly interesting perspective on the nature and origins of attachment in apes. Harlow (1958) disproved the common understanding of affection as a product of meeting the basic needs of a child. On the contrary, the results imply that infants become attached to figures with whom they feel more comfortable and safer, whereas nutrition became a secondary factor in this context. This idea was synthesized and developed by Harlow (1959) in a subsequent article. According to the author, infants require a parent figure providing comfort and security for normal psychological development during the critical period of early development. In this context, Sigmund Freud theorized that the personality of a person is shaped during childhood through a conflict of biological needs and social expectations (Banyard & Grayson, 2008). Harlow’s findings suggest the dominant role of the second aspect, as infants were more attached to the surrogate that provided a degree of social interaction. Furthermore, it can be assumed that parent figures, earning the attachment of a child, become mediators of the internal conflict described by Freud.

Ultimately, Harry F. Harlow managed to introduce a new perspective of attachment in the field of cognitive psychology. The results obtained by Harlow correspond with the prominent attachment theory postulates described by John Bowlby (Banyard & Grayson, 2008). Overall, children need an object of strong attachment for their normal development. However, Harlow managed to add a new dimension to this idea by describing the specific features that enable the required level of attachment. These studies informed further research in the discussed field, prompting phycologist to explore the balance between social and biological aspects of attachment.


Banyard, P., & Grayson, A. (2008). Introducing psychological research (3rd edition). Red Globe Press.

Harlow, H. F. (1959). Love in infant monkeys. Scientific American, 200, 68-74

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Harlow, H.F. (1958). The nature of love. American psychologist, 13, 673-685

Martin, G. & Carlson, N. R. (2019). Psychology (6th edition). Pearson.

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PsychologyWriting. (2022, July 10). Theories of Attachment in Harlow's 1958 Studies. Retrieved from


PsychologyWriting. (2022, July 10). Theories of Attachment in Harlow's 1958 Studies.

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PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Theories of Attachment in Harlow's 1958 Studies." July 10, 2022.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Theories of Attachment in Harlow's 1958 Studies." July 10, 2022.


PsychologyWriting. "Theories of Attachment in Harlow's 1958 Studies." July 10, 2022.