A famous experiment in anthropomorphism and psychology

by Patch O'Furr


Flayrah News, 3/5/2013:

Anthropomorphism is often imagined from our human point of view (attaching human characteristics to something non-human). But the concept can exist apart from ourselves, when animals see themselves in objects. The way it works for them can reveal more about us.

Harry Harlow was a psychologist who experimented with monkeys. In the 1950’s and 60’s, he gave his subjects “surrogate” mothers built from different objects, to see how they would behave, and learn about care-giving and companionship in social and cognitive development. PBS says about his famous experiment:

He took infant monkeys away from their real mothers, giving them instead two artificial mothers, one model made of wire and the other made of cloth. The wire model was outfitted with a bottle to feed the baby monkey. But the babies rarely stayed with the wire model longer than it took to get the necessary food. They clearly preferred cuddling with the softer cloth model, especially if they were scared. (When the cloth model had the bottle, they didn’t go to the wire model at all.)

Here’s an image gallery that illustrates the concept of “anthropomorphism” in monkey terms. To understand the experiment as a powerful metaphor, this web art project/essay says a lot with few words: Chicken Wire Mother.

These animal experiments were meant to speak about people. The way monkeys gave special meaning to surrogate objects based on softness makes me think about why furryness resonates with people. It’s tough to articulate in general terms, so I’ll let you interpret it for yourself.

People who advocate for animal welfare can be accused of too much anthropomorphizing. They respond that these experiments were far more cruel than helpful. For better or worse, Harry Harlow’s experiments were seminal for provoking conversation about animal welfare:

Gene Sackett of the University of Washington in Seattle, who was one of Harlow’s doctoral students, has stated that he believes the animal liberation movement in the U.S. was born as a result of Harlow’s experiments.

I was reminded of the “Chicken Wire Mother” by a Reddit humor post about a prank-ish art work (mildly NSFW) – a bronze Mickey Mouse with a colossal boner. In a debate about artistic content, one commenter quipped: “It could just be furry porn”. But bronze is cold and hard, not furry… and that’s what led to this post.