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Translated Psychology, Episode 1: Harlow, Comfort, and Monkeys

In psychology, basic research is composed of scientific studies meant to further general knowledge. Applied research, in contrast, consists of studies meant to address a specific problem or further particular understanding. In this series, we are taking basic psychological research and translating that research into more specific business settings. Today’s discussion focusses on the work of Harry Harlow, who studied rhesus monkeys.

Cupboard Theory vs Contact Comfort Theory

Why do babies love their mothers? This is the core question Mr Harlow meant to answer when he planned his famous experiments in 1958. Harlow meant to settle an ongoing dispute about two main theories related to mother-infant attachment of primates. The first is the Cupboard Theory, which posits that babies love their mothers primarily because they are a source of food. The baby gets hungry, the mother feeds the baby, and this process repeats itself, eventually leading to a strong mother-infant bond. An alternative theory is the Contact Comfort theory, which posits that babies grow attached to their mothers because of their warm fur. Obviously, mothers in the real world are both sources of food and sources of furry warmth. Thus, Harlow had to separate the two types of mothers to see which was more important.

Harlow created two “mothers” for lab-bred Rhesus monkey infants (who had known no real mothers in their lives). One was a wire “mother” with a source of food, but no warmth. The other “mother” was a fuzzy blanket covering a heat lamp that provided no food. There were three possible outcomes: the monkeys preferred the Cupboard Theory, Harlow’s Contact Comfort Theory, or they would show no natural preference and proffer no evidence for either theory. What Harlow found was decisive: the monkeys would climb onto and hug the fuzzy mother for 12-18 hours per day. They would then climb down to the wire mother when it came time to feed, and then they would go back to the fuzzy mother.

Application: Business Idols

Since we do not have business mothers, who do we cling to for comfort in business? For most people, there is someone at their workplace whom they idolise. We call these people “business idols”. They are the ones that people will cling to. People grow attached to them. They idolise them, and they will follow them around, because their warmth is vital to their survival. Successful businesspeople have always had to appear as idols in their private and professional lives. Most leaders try to meet this expectation by incorporating new personality traits or wearing masks throughout their lives. In the long run, however, these masks break down, and infants grow up.

Idol attachments that form does not stick around forever. Certain people are predisposed to becoming idols, but not all of those people can remain so. As an idol grows older, they must adapt to the ever-changing demands of the latest generation of infants. The warm, fuzzy blankets that satisfied previous generations are no longer as effective. And post-COVID, babies will be even more demanding.