The Rat Park Experiment: Let’s Play, not Shoot up!
By Johann Hari
Canadian experiment discovers the likely cause for addictions
It is now one hundred years since drugs were first banned—and all through this long century of waging war on drugs, we have been told a story about addiction by our teachers and by our governments. This story is so deeply ingrained in our minds that we take it for granted: There are strong chemical hooks in these drugs, so if we stopped on day twenty-one, our bodies would need the chemical. We would have a ferocious craving. We would be addicted. That’s what addiction means.
This theory was first established, in part, through rat experiments—ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advertisement 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 ad explains: “Only one drug is so addictive that nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until it’s dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you.” But in the 1970s, Bruce Alexander, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver BC, noticed 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 have colored balls, the best rat-food, tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat-abouttown 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 that were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats that had a happy environment did.
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