Infant bonding and violence

Dot writes: I was doing some internet searches in connection with my academic work and I came across this article published in 1975 in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. It argues that there is a causal connection between sensory deprivation in infants and violence in adults. The author, James W. Prescott, argues that in societies where infants experience low levels of pain and high levels of physical affection (touching, holding and carrying) there are typically low levels of adult violence. The paper draws on research by Harry and Margaret Harlow; they experimented with separating rhesus monkeys from their mothers at birth and raising them in cages in such a way that they could see, hear and interact with other monkeys but not touch them, and they found the monkeys so raised developed a range of abnormal behaviours. (I feel a bit queasy at the thought of this experiment, but for the moment that is by the by.) Prescott offers a classification of a number of societies into four categories: high infant physical affection plus low adult physical violence, low infant physical affection plus high adult physical violence, high a.p.a. plus high a.v., and low i.p.a. plus low a.v.. He reports on a questionnaire issued to American college students which was designed to assess links between attitudes to physical (especially sexual) pleasure and attitudes to violence. He argues that where low physical affection towards infants is paired with low adult violence, the lack of physical pleasure experienced by infants is compensated for by tolerance of adolescent sexuality.

The basic claim that there is a link between the infant’s experience of pleasurable touch and the person’s later disposition towards violence is intuitively convincing. But there were various things that struck me as a bit odd about either the article or the website it came from. First there was a sort of conspiracy theory vibe around the article in the website where I found it:

The continuation of this research was obstructed and eventually cancelled by the NICHD. Even the existence and results of these NICHD supported research programs was consciously omitted in a recent NIH publication.

Then there was the journal. What was an article about childhood psychology doing in a journal called The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists? Well, friend Wikipedia helped here: it seems the Bulletin was set up in the ‘forties to warn of the dangers of nuclear destruction (its cover carries a graphic of a ‘Doomsday Clock’: the number of minutes to midnight on this clock indicates how grave the threat of nuclear war currently is in the estimation of the editors). Prescott’s research is relevant to the journal’s concern with relating atomic science to its political and social context.

Finally, there was the paper itself. As I’ve said, the basic claim made sense. But some of the surrounding attitudes seemed naive.

Neighborhood movie theaters show such sexually violent films as Straw Dogs, Clockwork Orange, and The Klansman, while banning films which portray sexual pleasure (Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones). Attempts to close down massage parlors are another example of our anti-pleasure attitudes.

Well, this was published in 1975, so I suppose the lack of feminist perspective on the healthy joys of prostitution and filmed exploitation is understandable. I also wondered how accurately the questionnaire was represented in the table of attitudes derived from it: who would sit down and tick the box beside ‘I enjoy sadistic pornography’ or ‘I drink alcohol more often than I experience orgasm’? (Even though the latter must be true of a lot of happy and fulfilled people who just like a spot of merlot with dinner.) More material criticisms from someone investigating the methodology of the paper centre on the way the data on sexual attitudes was brought in after the societies had already been classified based on treatment of infants. I’m also not sure how the Maori got into column 1 (high physical affection, low violence) – I got the impression they were a pretty warlike lot. But I am scarcely an expert.

Still, interesting stuff.


5 thoughts on “Infant bonding and violence

  1. Fascinating find, Dot, thanks. It explains something that has mystified me for more than twenty years!

    Back in seminary days we were required to attend a seminar on “The Nuclear Issue”. The speaker opened his talk by saying he was really concerned by nuclear missiles and then launched into a paper about our failure to communicate with each other at a personal level, arguing that the whole arms race arose from the problem we had in getting in touch with ourselves and with each other. He must have been drawing on material similar to that in the Bulletin.

  2. Belle Inconnue

    There were a lot of sick psychological experiments around that time, some involving animals. I think one of themost famous involved putting little monkeys in a cage with a cuddly fluffly toy monkey they could cuddle as a mum substitute, or a nasty scratchy wire monkey that actually had a milk bottle attached so they could feed. Surprise surprise the baby monkeys preferred the cuddly milk free mum to the scratchy milky mum. Totally gross.

    I’m not sure if the study really works – how can you really measure such things? As with the maori in a lot of tribal societies I’m sure there is a lot of physical closeness, but also violence, but the violence may be a ritualised part of their culture, and take place in an acceptable context, rather than being something that is socially unaceptable. Sounds very 70s free love and hippyish!

  3. Childbirth: A word that signifies the power of a woman becoming a mother, a man becoming a father and the two of them becoming parents to a new baby.

    Family Roles:

    It’s no longer just the individual “you” and “I”. A new dynamic of interdependence takes precedence for the couple. In a few hours, with the arrival of the newborn, a family is born. He will become a father; she becomes a mother and that delicate baby becomes the center of attention. The mother provides warm milk, love, tenderness, affection, guidance, orientation and plenty of smiles.

    Both parents share the responsibility: The mother, besides love should have authority. The father beside authority should give love.

    The paternal role faces the challenge of creating a balance between authority and affection – the displaying an emotional side that fosters support and understanding. Parental roles are not exclusive but can instead complement each other as necessary to maximize family happiness.

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