To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

The environment we live in and that we help to create, individually and collectively, is more powerful than we can comprehend. We are just beginning to scratch the surface of this understanding.

Modern life has isolated us to such an extent that we forgot that humans are social by nature. There are no individuals as isolated islands and to think that way is self-destructive. Individuals are mere expressions of society, each of us a particular manifestation of a shared humanity. To separate the individual from society is to attempt to capture a wave in a bottle by filtering out the water.

The addict is the ultimate individual. Within his addiction, he is alone. This is the ideal of our atomized society.

Still, there are always other choices. The threat to society isn’t the drug addict, but the addictive mentality. We are addicted to our isolation, not realizing that it is our isolation that makes us and keeps us addicted. Addiction contributes to a sense of fatalism and hopelessness, that we have no choice, but we always have choice.

This self-destructive society was created by us and it can be uncreated by us. There are many possibilities that we could create in its place. However, first, we must acknowledge our responsibility as members of of this society. We have to allow ourselves to feel the wound of disconnection so that we can be reminded that underlying it is the longing for human relationship.

* * * *

The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think
By Johann Hari, Huffington Post

One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments — ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.”

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexandernoticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

At first, I thought this was merely a quirk of rats, until I discovered that there was — at the same time as the Rat Park experiment — a helpful human equivalent taking place. It was called the Vietnam War. Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.

After the first phase of Rat Park, Professor Alexander then took this test further. He reran the early experiments, where the rats were left alone, and became compulsive users of the drug. He let them use for fifty-seven days — if anything can hook you, it’s that. Then he took them out of isolation, and placed them in Rat Park. He wanted to know, if you fall into that state of addiction, is your brain hijacked, so you can’t recover? Do the drugs take you over? What happened is — again — striking. The rats seemed to have a few twitches of withdrawal, but they soon stopped their heavy use, and went back to having a normal life. The good cage saved them. (The full references to all the studies I am discussing are in the book.) [ . . . ]

The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander — the creator of Rat Park — told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery — how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.

10 thoughts on “To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

  1. Here is an example of creating a human equivalent to the rat park. Utah is building housing for the homeless.

    These are people who lack social capital and have been excluded from the communities they live in. They are isolated and are overwhelmed by problems, often including alcoholism and drug addiction.

    Their problems aren’t just personal, but social. It is their isolation that creates the conditions of suffering and hopelessness.

    “Going from homelessness into a home changes a person’s psychological identity from outcast to member of the community,” Tsemberis says. The old model “was well intentioned but misinformed. It is a long stairway that required sobriety and required stability in order to get into housing. So many people could never achieve that while on the street. You actually need housing to achieve sobriety and stability, not the other way around. But that was the system that was there. Some people called it a housing readiness industry, because all these programs were in business to improve people to get them ready for housing. Improve their character, improve their behavior, improve their moral standing. There is also this attitude about poor people, like somehow they brought this upon themselves by not behaving right.” By contrast, he adds, “Housing First provides a new sense of belonging that is reinforced in every interaction with new neighbors and other community members. We operate with the belief that housing is a basic right. Everyone on the streets deserves a home. He or she should not have to earn it, or prove they are ready or worthy.”

  2. I came across a social explanation of addiction using the word ‘habituts’. It’s from Zaid Hassan’s The Social Lab Revolution (p. 85):

    “The idea of habitus is deeper than the word habit. Bourdieu portrays a behavior that is deeply ingrained, mentally, physically, and systemically, one that is more of an addiction than a simple habit we can shrug off or just decide not to do. He writes that habitus exists “without being in any way the product of obedience to rules” and “can be collectively orchestrated without being the product of an organizing action of a conductor.”

    “Finally, we’re talking about “systems of durable, transposable dispositions.” In other words, it isn’t simply individual choice that we drive or eat meat; it’s also because there are systemic pressures on us to make these choices. You risk getting run over if you cycle, or there are no meatless options on the menu. These structural features condition us to a set of responses. Habitus thus represents a set of “permanent dispositions.” This permanence makes habitus “something like a property, a capital””


    “The habitus-personality complex is linked (at the top) to a social system. As I have proposed earlier, habitus is an emergent property of a social system. The habitus-personality complex is also linked (at the bottom) to a biopsychic system which generates a personality as an emergent property. Thus there is a bottom-up causality and a top-down causality at work. The habitus-personality complex, while composed of two emergent properties (bottom-up: personality; top down: habitus), can also be seen as a process. In this view, the habitus mechanism refers to the working of system-specific patterns of wanting, feeling, thinking, doing and interacting, while the personality mechanism refers to individual forms of wanting, feeling, thinking, doing and interacting. The two simultaneously operating mechanisms produce self-consciousness and identity, and what Elias calls the “we”-“I” balance in a personality (Elias 1991).

    [ . . . ]

    “What is the point of this model? Most important, it sheds light on processes that in most approaches end up in a “black box.” The habitus-personality complex models psychocultural and sociocultural processes that both social science and psychological approaches find difficult to account for. In psychology, the psyche-culture linkage is recognized as of fundamental importance only in somewhat marginal subfields such as social psychology and personality psychology. In the social sciences, the basic significance and the methodological implications of studying “cultural variables” have always been controversial. Mainstream approaches in sociology, political science, and economics have tended to steer clear of psychocultural and sociocultural dimensions of reality, leaving the field since the 1980s to postmodern approaches and cultural studies, which have little sympathy for scientific standards. However, the widespread use of such psychocultural and sociocultural concepts as “discourse,” “identity,” “meaning” and “reflexivity” by many social scientists underscores the perceived importance of the “cultural” dimension. The argument presented here is a philosophically and methodologically self-conscious effort to conceptualize sociocultural phenomena by specifying key systems and mechanisms as well as emergent properties and processes (Bunge 2004). The biopsychosocial model of the habitus process proposed here establishes explicit conceptual links between types of processes that are under the jurisdiction of different disciplines and their specialized approaches. How, then, does this conception improve on those of other basic approaches?

    “Rational actor models, for instance, rest on a priori assumptions that cut them off from cultural dimensions of reality in two directions. Upward by denying – methodologically and sometimes even ontologically – the existence of social systems, hence ruling out the explanatory significance of sociocultural macroprocesses in principle. Downward by postulating a rational actor – as a methodological device and sometimes as an ontological fact – an ideal type that is immune from the findings of psychology and in effect denies the explanatory significance of psychocultural processes in principle. The model of the habitus process proposed here links up at both “severed ends” of the rational actor model, i.e. to sociocultural and psychocultural dimensions. The model thereby does not deny the explanatory significance of rational action in principle, but problematizes this dimension by contextualizing it in the habituspersonality complex (see figure 3 above). The framework of rational individual action under constraints is replaced with a biopsychosocial conception of a habitus process that provides an alternative framework allowing us to search for rather than assume major mechanisms underlying social life.

    “Structuralist approaches, by contrast, are all about social systems but often do not take the system components sufficiently seriously. The causal efficacy of individual actors, for example, is considered low in structuralist models, shifting the major weight of the explanation on the “logic” (in my terms: on the emergent or systemic properties) of social systems. But what is rarely spelled out are the processes and mechanisms by which social structures shape individuals without at the same time depriving them of their agency. While structuralist approaches are in principle open to examining sociocultural processes, they are not conceptually equipped to link up to psychocultural processes. The habitus conception presented here provides this conceptual link with the view of individuals as biopsychosocial systems as well as the dynamic or process connection in the form of the habitus-personality complex.”

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