Can Motherhood Be Copied?: The Harlow Fake Mother Experiment

Today, we will investigate the Harlow fake mother experiment. Can motherhood be copied? To answer this question, we will explore the Harlow fake mother experiment. What is the fake mother? Can an offspring attribute motherhood to another object under appropriate conditions? Or, instead, does anyone need to load this sort of meaning?

To explain more, do creatures that grow up without a mother try to fill this space? Is there a search for a mother in their natural codes? Or is the search for a mother something that social balances teach later? In other words, is everyone born a mother’s little precious?

Today, we will introduce you to a brand new social experiment. Even if the investigation originated in the 1950s, we can give new meanings to this old experiment with our current knowledge.

Psychologist Harry Harlow tried to answer these questions with this experiment.

What Is This Experiment?

Most psychologists in the 1950s and 1960s argued that babies only depended on their mothers for nourishment. Some psychologists even opposed maternal love and thought it was dangerous for child development. Psychologist Harlow and his friends, on the other hand, believed that the mother’s love and trust should not be ignored. For them, the mother’s presence occupied the child’s psychological and physical place. Unfortunately, they did not have any concrete evidence on this matter.


Harlow’s previous experiments on monkey learning were available. Adult monkeys were used in these experiments. But he also needed baby monkeys for experiments in which he wanted to learn about the mother-infant relationship. For this reason, he established a monkey nest. There were a lot of monkeys inside. Monkeys growing up in their environment mate and offspring were born from these matings, but the newborn cubs were not in contact with their mothers; the parents were kept separately from the babies.

These innocent babies met their maternal needs by holding on to Harlow and his team. In a way, they considered them their mothers. The problem was that even this emotional bond between the baby monkeys and the team of psychologists was not a substitute for the mother. Even the babies’ communication with their peers changed as time passed. They were shy and asocial toward the external environment and were sometimes even more aggressive. In other words, they were not behaving like normal baby monkeys.

Experiment Begins

At that time, in a research report made by behavioral psychologists, it was written that the development of children who grew up apart from their mothers was not normal compared to other children. In addition, a documentary was even shot on the same subject.

In this context, Harlow’s experiments were of great importance. Experiments on primates, whose cognitive functions are very close to humans, could explain why anything that could replace the mother could not fully develop the baby.

Monkey mom

Harlow has prepared a mechanism for these monkeys with the mentioned background data. There were two models of mothers placed side by side. One was made of an iron wire and was rather expressionless, while the other was more ape-like and plush. In the first stage of the experiment, the plush ones had a bottle to meet the babies’ milk needs, but the wire figures did not have a bottle in their hands. At first, the monkeys chose neither. They accepted them as foreigners, and naturally, a mother figure did not form. But afterward, the babies preferred the plush one.

A second experimental model was created to support this result. This time, the reverse of the above situation was applied. While the wire figures had baby bottles, the plushies did not. To see if the babies turned to plush ones to drink milk. Results were obtained that would upset the minds of most psychologists. Almost all of the babies turned to the plush monkey again. Of course, they went to the wire mother model to drink milk, but as soon as the function was completed, they immediately went to the plush one and met their cuddling needs with it.

Mother experiment monkey

When the longing for the mother was thus relieved a little, the monkeys became a little more social. They bonded more with the environment. But with each moment of fear, they turned straight to the warm and plush mother. When the plushies were picked up, the monkeys cried, frightened, and their stress levels increased. For Harlow, the answers to some of the questions were actually obvious. Again, Harlow tried something else to support it. He put a teddy bear that makes a noise in the environment where the plush mother and babies were. This noisy teddy bear scares the baby monkey, but whenever it gets scared, it goes to its mother, thus reducing its fear level significantly. In fact, the monkey dared to attack this teddy bear while his mother was present.  After all, his mother had his back!


Harlow made the motherless generation wait until adulthood to share the results of these experiments. Most of these solitary monkeys did not mate when they were adults. They have always been more wild and distant from other apes. Those who breed and have children in some way tend to be angry and harm their offspring. Harlow also studied those who grew up without any plush mothers. As expected, they are also very introverted and unhappy. These monkeys generally could not communicate well with monkeys of average growth.

In conclusion, contrary to what was believed then, Harlow showed with these experiments that motherhood is not just about giving milk but a safe heaven that prepares us for the dangers in our environment and teaches us how to establish social balances.

References and Further Reading

Cherry, K. (2020, December 3). How Harry Harlow’s research on love shaped how we treat children today. Verywell Mind. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from

Harlow’s classic studies revealed the importance of maternal contact. Association for Psychological Science – APS. (2018, June 20). Retrieved January 3, 2023, from

(2010, December 16). Harlow’s studies on dependency in Monkeys. YouTube. Retrieved January 3, 2023, from

Asu Pelin Akköse and Mete Esencan have done the proofreading.

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Tufan Özdemir

Hello there! I'm Tufan Özdemir. I am a philosophy student at METU. Philosophy has been a big part of my life and my life. For this reason, most of my articles on this site are on philosophy.

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