When I tell people that, as a psychologist, one of my main areas of interest is interpersonal attraction, I’m sometimes met with a certain condescension that still surprises me. Should psychologists really be wasting their time studying something as trivial and frivolous as attraction? Aren’t there more important things for social psychologists to be concerned about, like aggression or conformity? I usually have a number of stock answers to these questions, one of which is that the things that most people take for granted about attraction turn out to not actually be true. As we’ll see over the coming months, for example, opposites very rarely attract, but the only reason why we know that is because someone somewhere took the time to test the idea.
Another of my favorite responses is that the study of interpersonal attraction isn’t as trivial as most people think. Underpinning the way in which we form interpersonal relationships is what social psychologists call our “need to belong.” Although there are times when we want nothing more than to be on our own, most people have a pervasive need to form and maintain enduring, close relationships with others. We are, according to Aristotle, “social animals.” And there is a good reason for this: People who have more reliable networks of social ties have higher self-esteem than those who live more isolated lives. They also tend to be happier and more satisfied with life, physically healthier, and less likely to die a premature death. Studying attraction just became a little more important.
Perhaps the best way of testing whether we really are “social animals” is to examine what happens when we’re isolated from others. Harry Harlow’s famous (or, depending on your point of view, infamous) experiments on newborn rhesus monkeys provide a useful starting point. In one of Harlow’s experiments, baby monkeys were separated from their mothers at birth and raised in isolation for up to 12 months. Some monkeys were provided with artificial mothers that consisted of no more than a wire frame, or a wire frame covered with towelling cloth and with a primitive face. Harlow found that baby monkeys spent considerably more time with the cloth mothers than the wire mothers, which he took as evidence of the importance of contact comfort in the formation of mother-child bonds.
More controversially, perhaps, Harlow’s research was extended to baby monkeys that were totally isolated from contact with any living thing for up to 12 months. He found that these monkeys were emotionally damaged. Most began biting themselves, rocked back and forth repetitively, refused to play with other monkeys and failed to defend themselves from physical attacks.
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