monkey1Imagine for a moment that you are an experiment participant in a dystopian future university thirty years from now. At birth, you were taken from your natural parents and assigned to two robotic parental unit alternatives. The first unit is cold and metal, it has a big frowny face, and all it’s good for is dispensing the occasional hot meal through its midriff. The second unit provides no food, but this unit is fashioned with a luxurious coat of fine fur that feels warm to the touch.

Months pass as you are raised by these two robotic parental units. As you descend further and further into madness, every move you make is video recorded by a pair of enterprising future psychologists who are seeking an answer to one question: Will you spend more time with the cold, metal, food-dispensing robot or the furry one? Surprisingly, though the metal robot fulfills your metabolic needs, the researchers are fascinated to find that you spend most of your time with the furry mother surrogate.

What do results from an experiment such as this (famously conducted by Harry Harlow on monkey’s in the 1950’s) tells us about the nature of social relationships, love, and survival? Do they tell us anything about the human/monkey experience? Or are the conditions of the experiment so artificial in nature, that they obscure our ability to draw insights about basic psychology? I consider these questions in today’s post.

I. The importance of external validity

If the above hypothetical study had been covered by a blog or news outlet, you can pretty easily predict the comments following the summary of the research (which, by the way, you shouldn’t read). They would involve critiques of the study that include things like: “This study is nonsense, I can’t believe they used taxpayer money to fund this research?” or how about “Another flawed psychology study using university students.” or even “Since when do people get raised by robots. Useless!”
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