Animal studies of attachment

Dog and cat showing affection

Two key animal studies are named by the AQA specification: Lorenz’s research with goslings and Harlow’s study of infant rhesus monkeys. Here’s a lesson plan for the topic.

Introducing the topic

Enter the phrase, ‘unusual animal friends’ into a search engine to find lots of examples of unlikely animal attachments. Either show the class a short video or series of images of these ‘friendships’ such as the dog who paddles with ducks or chick that cuddles with a cat. (NB – this could be a fun homework prior to the lesson to find the ‘cutest animal pair’).

Ask students why this could happen. What is the importance of forming these bonds?

You may find students’ initial answers are anthropomorphic, so challenge them to move beyond emotions and consider the evolutionary advantage of being predisposed to form attachments.

Main learning

Split the class in half and assign one group Lorenz and the other Harlow. Students read about, and maybe watch a video clip of, the study they have been allocated. On a sheet of paper divided into three sections, students record the following:

  • Their emotional response (How did they feel about the research?)
    Students may find the thought of having little goslings following humans around funny. They may feel it was harmful. Studying Harlow’s research may elicit stronger emotions, especially if viewing footage of the frightened infants.
  • Their psychological response (What did they learn? How could they explain the findings?)
    Students can make reference to adaptive behaviour, innate tendencies and, if reading ahead, make links to Bowlby’s theory.
  • Their critical response (Strengths/limitations of the procedure? Supporting/refuting research?)
    The question of whether research using non-human animals can be applied to humans can be considered. Discussions of species specific behaviours (curlews don’t show human imprinting). Methodological and ethical issues in Harlow’s work.

Exam practice

Students then form pairs (one student for each study) and share their AO1 points (procedure and findings) and AO3 comments (evaluative responses) as they answer the following potential exam questions together: ‘Describe and evaluate animal studies of attachment’ (12 marks if following AS route, 16 marks for A-level).

These essays can be marked by the teacher and photocopied so each member of the pair has a copy.

2 thoughts on “Animal studies of attachment

  1. Emma says:

    Is there any information somewhere that I can read on why such bonds happen in nature? I was hoping that this article would explain it, but it turned out it doesn’t. It is probably because of a temporary necessity of something or I don’t know.

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