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The Pit of Despair Experiment: Proves Loneliness Causes Depression


KOMPAS.com – Pit of Despair is a tool used in experiments conducted on rhesus macaque monkeys during the 1970s.

American comparative psychologist Harry Harlow and his students at the University of Wisconsin are responsible for this experiment.

The aim of this study was to produce an “animal model of human clinical depression”.

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Reported Pscychology Wikia, The pit of despair is nothing more than a stainless steel tub with beveled sides to a rounded bottom.

The floor allows waste material to fall through the drain and out of holes drilled in the stainless steel.

The room was furnished with a food box and a water bottle holder, and was covered with the top of a pyramid.

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This is designed to prevent imprisoned subjects from hanging from the top of the room.

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Harlow kept the baby monkeys in a room alone for up to six weeks. Within a few days, they stopped moving and remained huddled in a corner.

The monkeys were found to be psychotic when removed from the room, and most did not recover.

Harlow’s first experiment on the effects of loneliness involved isolating monkeys in a cage surrounded by a steel wall with small, one-way mirrors.

The researchers could see in, but the monkeys could not see out.

The only connection the monkeys have with the world is when the researchers’ hands change their beds or deliver fresh water and food.

Baby monkeys are placed in this box immediately after birth. Four were left for 30 days, four for six months, and the rest for a year.

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After 30 days, they were found to be “very disturbed”. Two of them refused to eat and starved to death.

After being isolated for a year, the monkeys were found to be barely moving, not exploring or playing, not even capable of sexual intercourse.

When placed with other monkeys for daily play sessions, they were severely bullied by other monkeys.

This experiment showed Harlow what it was about total and partial isolation of developing monkeys.

Even so, when he feels he hasn’t grasped the essence of depression, what he believes is characterized by feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and feelings of being trapped.

In Harlow’s words, “drowned in the well of despair.”

Even the happiest monkeys come out broken.

Hallow’s students conclude that even a happy, normal childhood is no defense against depression.

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The experiment yielded what Deborah Blum calls a “common sense result.”

Monkeys, animals that are very social in nature, when placed in isolation, emerge in a “severely damaged” state.

Some recover, some don’t.

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