Sunday, January 25, 2015

Addiction is a Symptom

Jonathan Hari reviews those famous experiments that give rats a choice between plain water and water laced with heroin or cocaine. The rats use the drugged water exclusively, until it kills them:
But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander 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 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.
Hari follows up this important insight with an absurdly narrow view of human happiness that I think ruins the article, but the basic point stands: drug addiction is mainly a response to unhappiness, not a chemical reaction. Most heavy drug users are medicating their misery. West Virginia has more opiate addicts than the rest of the country, but not because West Virginians have some genetic predisposition to addiction. They have more drug abuse because they have more unemployment and less hope for the future.

Of course drug abuse can become a terrible problem, one that makes it all but impossible to work on the underlying causes. As George Orwell once wrote, "a man may take to drink because he feels himself a failure, then fail all the more because he takes to drink." But once you get people off drugs, what they need is not prison, but friends, family, work and hope.


G. Verloren said...

Anthropology arrives at much the same conclusion. For example, historically in many cultures drinking with others was seen as perfectly acceptable behavior, but drinking alone was seen as a negative behavior, often even being treated as a taboo.

Overwhelmingly, when people behave poorly - be it resorting to drug usage, crime, or just selfish or unkind behavior - it's because some need (or sometimes merely a perceived need) isn't met and they're unhappy with their lives.

Truly happy people simply don't have reasons to (wittingly) do harmful things to themselves or others. People transgress because they feel they need to - either because they need money/security/pain relief, or sometimes because they "need" the "thrill" or other psychological response gained by committing transgressions against others. But a person whose financial and psychological needs are met doesn't have any impulse to steal, and consequently they don't

leif said...

Interestingly, depressingly, it would then stand to reason that keeping a population *unhappy* might be used as a political tool.