What is the cause of addiction? Hint: it’s not drugs.

Johann Hari wrote an article on the real cause of addiction. Scientific research has revealed that the real cause of addiction is not the drugs themselves, but the quality of your life. The Drug Warriors don’t want you to know this.

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…

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.

18 thoughts on “What is the cause of addiction? Hint: it’s not drugs.

  1. Independent Radical November 1, 2015 at 02:53 Reply

    While it is true that material and social conditions have a lot to do with whether somebody takes drugs, I would not let drugs (and the illegal enterprises that sell drugs) off the hook altogether. They do trigger a strong pleasure response and they cause people to become detached from reality. This may help them “cope with” bad circumstances, but I want people to fight back, not cope (or passively conform to social norms by getting a low paying job and hoping everything will work out for them in the end).

    I also want spoilt, white college students to stop pretending that their drug use is harmless, because they are not stereotypical drug addicts (poor, homeless dudes). This experiment seems to suggest that if they are taking drugs regularly there is probably something wrong with their lives. Thus the experiment cannot really be used as a defence of drug use.

    I am not advocating for drug users to be thrown in jail. I also do not want those who sell drugs because they are desperate for money to be punished, but illegal organisations are hierarchical as well. I have no more sympathy for the heads of illegal, profit driven enterprises than I do for the heads of legal, profit driven enterprises (which also make their products as addictive as possible, even if they are not technically regarded as drugs). What this experiment actually suggests is that drug producing enterprises have an incentive to make the general public as miserable as possible (much like other capitalists).

    So in summary, while I agree with the argue being made here, I do not like seeing it used to encourage or justify the sale and consumption of drugs. Similar arguments are made about pornography. People say that the problem is “patriarchy”, whatever they mean by that, not “pornography”, when pornography is in fact an aspect of patriarchy. It would not exist at all if men truely respected women and saw them as equals (other media prepares boys for pornography consumption through shoving violent, sexualised images down their throats). Likewise drugs (including religion, LOL) would not exist if people did not live in such a heartless, oppressive world, the kind which many want to escape from or deny.

    • Francois Tremblay November 1, 2015 at 02:58 Reply

      I think you have to make a distinction between someone taking a drug or not, and its effects on the brain. We know pornography has long-term effects on the brain. People should quit, and they probably would if they were more free to express themselves sexually, but that doesn’t change the fact. Likewise, drugs do trigger certain responses, but the point is that it doesn’t have a lot of bearing on the issue of whether a person will take them or not, contrary to common belief.

  2. OutlawSage November 3, 2015 at 03:41 Reply

    This isn’t new. I mean this was discovered or considered common sense ages ago, funny how society goes round and round in circles. Yeah this isn’t really about the same thing but whenever people talk about people destroying their lives with drugs I always think…isn’t most of that misery because the drugs are illegal and they have to get tangled among violent criminals to get them, they can’t work because of drug tests and they have to virtually live in hiding? I mean, isn’t that more so the cause of misery than the drugs themselves? But it does I think it depends on the drugs too, obviously meth destroys your ability to create or receive, I can’t remember, dopamine so even if you get that human connection your ability to feel at peace or happy or euphoric is gone. But yeah, I’d err on the side of blaming the overall alienation of people in our society and the Injustice system than drugs in and of themselves.
    Just recently a fool in my family warned me about drinking, cause I do like a drink, that alcoholism “runs in the family”. I can’t imagine getting addicted and if I were to it would have happened by now, and honestly do they listen to the stories they tell of our family? Divorce, abuse, abandonment, schizophrenia, but sure let’s pretend alcoholism has some kind of gene that is passed on. I also smoke occasionally and have never gotten addicted. Hmm.

  3. Heretic November 8, 2015 at 15:56 Reply

    This post is one of my favorites.

    Anti-drug moralists really love to apply a rationale to illegal or hallucinogenic drugs that they wouldn’t apply to psychiatric ones. Drugs help people self-medicate for whatever reason, and even be part of their psychological healing in lieu of psychiatric ones. The legalization of medical (and recreational) marijuana is part of that struggle. OutlawSage mentions a great point about drug tests, which are a privacy violation – why should an employer case if someone uses drugs in their free time?! Most of the moralists have never even used drugs, and don’t care to listen to any kind of drug user, either.

    Bill Hicks once said about drugs: “If you want to understand a society, take a good look at the drugs it uses. And what can this tell you about American culture? Well, look at the drugs we use. Except for pharmaceutical poison, there are essentially only two drugs that Western civilization tolerates: Caffeine from Monday to Friday to energize you enough to make you a productive member of society, and alcohol from Friday to Monday to keep you too stupid to figure out the prison that you are living in.”

    Terrence McKenna said: “Psychedelics are illegal not because a loving government is concerned that you may jump out of a third story window. Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behaviour and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”

    Regarding job choice: There are plenty of high-fuctioning alcoholics and cokeheads and heroin addicts and prescription drug abusers in white-collar fields, and nobody says anything about them. The “low-paying job” or “jobless loser” is a negative stereotype, which is why the white-collar ones can fly under the radar and escape the War on Drugs. But anyway, a job is a job, who is anyone to judge? People aren’t defined by their work.

    • Heretic November 8, 2015 at 15:59 Reply

      One of the stereotypes, that of the homeless drug addict, brings up the issue of money. Some good Samaritans are far too concerned and controlling with how those less fortunate spend money, and so insist on giving them THINGS instead of plain CASH. It also ties into the socially acceptable forms of prostitution (where women receive gifts and dinners) vs. actual prostitution (where women get money). Yes, it’s judgmental of the receiver.

    • Francois Tremblay November 8, 2015 at 16:04 Reply

      Yea, I think you nailed it. Especially that McKenna quote.

    • Independent Radical November 10, 2015 at 22:52 Reply

      “Psychedelics are illegal because they dissolve opinion structures and culturally laid down models of behaviour and information processing. They open you up to the possibility that everything you know is wrong.”

      That is actually one of the things I don’t like about drugs. I am all for challenging the status quo, but illegal drugs seem to turn people into total relativists, which completely prevents them from changing the status quo. You are not going to be able to figure out what is wrong with society if you distract yourself from it with substances that prevent you from understanding reality. It is much better to actually examine society and develop rational critiques of it. Illegal drugs dull perception (of the real world) just as much as alcohol does, if not more so.

      I am not a huge fan of legal drugs, like caffeine and alcohol (which are probably only legal because they have been legal for a long time and there are large corporations that make money of them) either. I favour cognitive behavioural therapies over prescription drugs, though I do think people should have access to them if they need them. However, if someone does not have any medical conditions which make drug use necessary, then they should not be taking them (given the side effects), in the same way that people with healthy genitals should not surgically alter them. There is no need to fix what is not broken (usually bodies and minds). We should fix what is broken (society).

      I am not arguing for drugs to be illegal. I can certainly see how anti-drug laws target poor people and racial minorities, but the fact that wealthy, white people can get away with taking drugs, makes the pro-drug use position (which is distinct from favouring legalisation) seem somewhat white centric. Furthermore the reasoning behind the pro-drug position strikes me as very liberal. It is the same reasoning liberals apply to beauty practices and dangerous sex acts, the idea that they as an oh so special individual can do whatever they want to their bodies and that all criticism constitutes “oppression” and an attempt to make whatever they are doing illegal. Liberal reasoning annoys me in any context. People should not be thrown in jail for using drugs, but they should be informed about the physical and mental health risks so that they can make better decisions. They should also learn not to interpret criticisms of their behaviours as personal attacks.

      • Francois Tremblay November 10, 2015 at 22:55 Reply

        All great points, IR.

      • Heretic November 10, 2015 at 23:15 Reply

        “but illegal drugs seem to turn people into total relativists, which completely prevents them from changing the status quo. You are not going to be able to figure out what is wrong with society if you distract yourself from it with substances that prevent you from understanding reality.”

        On the contrary, they break the monotony of everyday life and enable one to get a refreshed and more detached view, breaking down old and bad habits. Have you ever done drugs? I’m gonna go out on a limb and say No. Weed has done wonders for me, and allowed me to cope with horrible situations. Not everyone can afford thousands of dollars in therapy, changing therapists, and finding the right method that works for them.

        “Illegal drugs dull perception (of the real world) just as much as alcohol does, if not more so.”
        Says what? Alcohol is a depressant, other drugs are stimulants, narcotics and hallucinogenics.

        “However, if someone does not have any medical conditions which make drug use necessary, then they should not be taking them (given the side effects), in the same way that people with healthy genitals should not surgically alter them.”

        This assumes that chances are good any one person doesn’t have any medical conditions to make drug use necessary. It’s just faulty logic. Try applying this same rational to prescription and psychiatric drugs. Here’s another good quote:

        “Use them with respect as to the transformations they can achieve, and you have an extraordinary research tool. Go banging about with a psychedelic drug for a Saturday night turn-on, and you can get into a really bad place.”
        — Alexander Shulgin

        “but the fact that wealthy, white people can get away with taking drugs, makes the pro-drug use position (which is distinct from favouring legalisation) seem somewhat white centric.”
        That implies minorities don’t use and don’t favor drugs, which is false. I’m also sure they wouldn’t like the idea of regulating drugs with government control instead of taking a harm reduction approach, much like decriminalization vs. legalization of prostitution (yes, legalization is sexually regulating women’s bodies).

        Your argument has too many “buts.”

        • Francois Tremblay November 10, 2015 at 23:32 Reply

          I do have to say that I agree with you about the minorities thing. I’m not sure how both the pro-drugs and the anti-drugs position can be anti-minorities. I mean, what’s the alternative?

          • Heretic November 10, 2015 at 23:37 Reply

            If you want to talk about the actual drugs in question, from what I can tell, minorities are targeted for crack as well as weed usage. Those are two VERY different drugs. Heroin and cocaine are used by upper-class white people. I’m not sure about meth. Hallucinogenics are harder to acquire, with ecstasy being a big “party” drug. And alcohol and prescription drugs are pretty much used/abused by everyone, I think (percentage rates and factors among specific groups differ).

          • Heretic November 10, 2015 at 23:45 Reply

            Decriminalization. Better yet, if we’re gonna be concerned with substances that actually kill people, make Red Bull and other energy drinks illegal.

            • Francois Tremblay November 11, 2015 at 00:18 Reply

              Why Red Bull?

              • Heretic November 11, 2015 at 09:20 Reply

                That was sarcasm. Red Bull has killed some teenagers and adults.

      • Heretic November 10, 2015 at 23:20 Reply

        “I am all for challenging the status quo, but illegal drugs seem to turn people into total relativists, which completely prevents them from changing the status quo.”

        This is a really nice way of saying,”Illegal drugs turn people into unmotivated losers and lazy bums!”

        Key word: ILLEGAL drugs. Maybe their illegality is an issue, hmm?

      • Heretic November 10, 2015 at 23:28 Reply

        “However, if someone does not have any medical conditions which make drug use necessary, then they should not be taking them”

        And every person who’s ever used drugs is supposed to disclose personal information to prove a point? Do YOU drink the legal drugs of coffee and alcohol?

        Also, fixing broken society is easier said than done. Pretty much everyone has an excuse, usually a baby or other mouths to feed, or that they are poor (whether they really are or not) and don’t want to get injured, etc. that there simply aren’t enough in number for real collective action. It’s talk of a utopia that’s expected to be created by other people. That’s why a few second-wavers have said radical feminism is dead; revolutionary movements are strong but short-lived.

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