Brilliant, brutal or just monkeying around? Jon Sutton reports.
READERS occasionally ask me, as editor, about the function of this page. The Press Committee manage it, and their main goal is simple – to promote and discuss psychology in the media, with a view to encouraging members to disseminate their knowledge in this way. Another might be to let you know about programmes you may well have missed: in this case, a documentary on More4 about American psychologist Harry Harlow and his primate research.
According to the programme, Harlow taught us to hug our children, but via ‘some of the most chilling experiments’ ever seen. Did he have the right to hurt animals to help us? Was he, the narrator intoned, ‘a brilliant scientist or an unforgivably brutal sadist’? You got the feeling the programme wasn’t going to conclude the former.
In fact, early on they decided that he was at the very least a ‘maverick’, even though former assistant Helen LeRoy pointed out that nobody was complaining in the early days. After scampering through famous studies with cloth or wire ‘mothers’ for monkeys, strange environments and even ‘really frightening environments’ (cue scary sound effects), the programme highlighted the rapturous reception Harlow received for his inaugural speech as APA president. Colleagues reported that Harlow ‘startled psychology’, that he was ‘a provocateur who chose terms deliberately to aggravate and stimulate the scientific community and lay public’, and that he was on the road constantly ‘selling what he was trying to encourage the scientific community to embrace’. Oh for more of that these days!
But riding the wave of public interest – ‘research money flowed’, and ‘people looked up to scientists’ – was a dangerous game, and Harlow got carried away. William Mason said he ‘wanted his name up in neon lights in the sky’, and ‘was out to shock’. He did just that with ‘the rape rack’, forcing his disturbed monkeys to breed and become disturbed parents, and ‘the pit of despair’, basically a piece of apparatus just as cruel as it sounds in which monkeys were left alone for up to a year. Colleagues reported how they pleaded with him to at least call it something else, but ‘he would not use a benign term when a loaded one will do’. Female monkeys were ‘little bitches’.
The programme searched for reasons behind Harlow’s increasingly dark direction in his private life. His children reported that there wasn’t much hugging, he worked a lot and had an alcohol problem. I’m not convinced this would mark him out from many academics, but the escalating brutality and lack of empathy for the animals involved would. Was the brutality necessary or useful? According to the programme, Harlow’s work with the ‘evil substitute mothers’ (metal spikes, blasts of air) ‘rewrote the books for abuse and neglect in kids’. But as primatologist Roger Fouts said, perhaps our own backyard would have been a better place to look: ‘If you want to find out what abusive mothers do, go to emergency wards.’ The footage in this documentary was graphic and disturbing, and it all seemed quite a price to pay for experimental control.
Another psychology classic was revisited in Derren Brown’s latest Channel 4 special, The Heist. As part of a preamble to getting three out of four ‘normal’ people to carry out an armed robbery, Brown recreated the Milgram electric shock experiment. He claimed to show that, as in the original, the majority of people are prepared to deliver what they believe to be potentially fatal electric shocks. Of course he only really showed that the majority of a group he has selected from an already highly self-selected sample (answering an ad) would be prepared to deliver what they possibly believe to be fatal electric shocks. We may never know the percentage for a truly random sample: at least one person had heard of Milgram’s study, and no doubt the figure will be much higher now.
Much was made at the end of The Heist about an independent psychologist making sure everyone was fully debriefed and delighted with the whole experience, even the man who found himself pointing a gun at a security guard and saying ‘I swear to God, if you move you’re dead…if you’ve got family…’. Personally, I wonder whether the ends justify the means, as with Space Cadets. Last month’s column ended with a query about how a psychologist could justify their involvement in that programme (convincing people they were on a space mission), and Professor Robert Edelmann got in touch to do just that. He said that it was not about choosing gullible fools, it ‘illustrated a range of fundamental psychological theories (group influences, social pressure, etc.) and that we believe what we want to believe and access information consistent with our assumptions’.  
One argument is that TV companies are going to make these programmes with or without the involvement of psychologists and it’s better that it’s with. But many years on from Harlow, getting psychological theories across to the lay public is still an important and dangerous business. We need discussion about whether brutality, in its many forms, is necessary or useful.
    Jon Sutton

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