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?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.
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.
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.