Once upon a time, there was an adorable baby monkey named Curtis. Curtis had big brown eyes and soft downy fur. Curtis was like most other baby monkeys except for one important thing: Curtis lived in a laboratory overseen by an evil scientist named Harry. You see, as soon as Curtis was born, Harry snatched Curtis from his mother. Harry dropped Curtis into a new cage. But Curtis wasn’t alone in this cage.
Someone else was there with him. It was someone he’d never met before, but she did remind him of someone he knew. This someone had the same shape as his own mother. This someone gave Curtis milk, just like his own mother had. But something was off about this new mother. This new mother was made of metal. Harry’s experiment was underway.
Ok, so I may have taken some liberties in the telling, but the above is mostly true. A little more than a half century ago, Harry Harlow conducted a series of experiments hinging on separating monkeys from their mothers at birth. You may be familiar with this experiment because of its most commonly cited finding: The pull to bond with a caregiver exists independent of a feeding relationship. That is, babies loves their mamas as more than just a source of milk. But that’s not the Harlow monkey finding I find most compelling; the one I’m writing about is pretty far down the Google search result.
In this version of the experiment, baby monkeys were once again separated from their mothers and placed in a cage with a mechanical mother. But they were also isolated from other baby monkeys. Their only social interactions were with their mechanical mothers. The researchers wanted to see how these monkeys turned out.
As you may have guessed, the short answer is not well. Depending on the duration and timing of the isolation, these monkeys grew up to be fearful and aggressive, and that had an impaired sex drive to boot. The 1965 paper about these findings says the exposure to only the mechanical mothers “reduces animals such that their primary social responsiveness is fear.”
In other words, these monkeys were anxious and depressed. In some cases, the monkeys were never able to be rehabilitated. They were permanently warped.
I’ve been thinking about Harlow’s monkeys lately because I am replacing more and more of my real life social relationships with mechanized online ones. This is a reasonable swap on one level. I am a stay-at-home mother, and the rest of my family lives out-of-state. There are all kinds of other reasons particular to my biography that it’s happening for me at this specific moment, but the larger point is that this phenomenon is becoming more and more common for lots of us. As Internet access spreads and in-real-life frictions and barriers intensify, more and more of us are turning to the Internet for social support. We let Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and Twitter mediate our personal relationships.
On the one hand, these forums have the look and feel of social connections. We can share our ideas and get responses to them. We see avatars of human faces. We can connect with these ideas and avatars across time and space, which has meaningful benefits. These Internet-mediated social interactions can be deeply nourishing.
On the other hand, we are all pressing our flesh to metal and plastic in order to elicit this essential nourishment. I wonder what it will do to us to meet our social needs with something that can appear to take the form of the social connection we so need to survive but fundamentally lacks humanity. Social media is purpose built to feed our economic engine, not our hearts.
I know we are not monkeys. We are certainly not Harlow’s monkeys. If you’re reading this, you were raised by people. You likely have IRL friends and relationships to counterbalance your online ones. But if we know that scenario in Harlow’s lab is bad, where is the line? Harlow’s monkeys’ dysfunction was dose-dependant. They were increasingly warped the longer they spent isolated with only mechanical social interaction.
How much real social interaction can be replaced with mechanical social interaction before problems start showing through the cracks?
And most importantly: Will we find out before we, like Curtis, become permanently warped?
This essay has also appeared on Medium