Lets go to Rat Park

A book challenging the common views of addiction was recently published called Chasing The Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs by Johann Hari. It garnered a lot of attention with articles appearing in Huffington Post and the Guardian. In the book Hari mentions the studies of “Rat Park” and the viewpoint that addiction is more from social stresses than from the nature of the addicting substance. Indeed, many people often have illness or injuries that require prolonged exposure to narcotics and when the injuries heal they seem to withdraw from the drugs without difficulty.

The concept of rat park was from studies published in the late 1970’s by Bruce K Alexander and his colleagues. He believed that previous studies of rats that showed them getting addicted when given a choice of plain water or morphine laced water, were due to stressing the rats by having them in isolation cages.

To test his hypothesis, Alexander built Rat Park, a 95 square foot housing colony, 200 times the floor area of a standard laboratory cage. There were 16–20 rats of both sexes in residence, an abundance of food, balls and wheels for play, and enough space for mating and raising litters. The results of the experiment appeared to support his hypothesis. Rats who had been forced to consume morphine hydrochloride for 57 consecutive days were brought to Rat Park and given a choice between plain tap water and water laced with morphine. For the most part, they chose the plain water. “Nothing that we tried,” Alexander wrote, “… produced anything that looked like addiction in rats that were housed in a reasonably normal environment.” Control groups of rats isolated in small cages consumed much more morphine in this and several subsequent experiments.

Seeing that these studies were published 35 years ago I was surprised that I hadn’t heard of them before. I’ve been involved with recovery issues for 25 years. I decided to look a little further into the Rat Park studies and what happened to them and how they fit in to addiction research in general since then.

The two major science journals, Science and Nature, rejected Alexander’s first paper, which appeared instead in Psychopharmacology, a respectable but much smaller journal in 1978. The paper’s publication initially attracted no response. Within a few years funding was withdrawn. Alexander developed what he calls his “adaptive” view of human addiction. The adaptive model posits that addictions result from failure to achieve the level of social acceptance, competence, self-confidence and personal autonomy required of individuals in the society in which they live. You can hear a speech of Dr Alexander’s here:


He also has an interesting website with many interesting articles here:


Subsequent studies have had mixed results but mostly supportive of the initial point of view that animals in stressed environments tend towards addiction. It seems that Alexander’s ideas fell largely into obscurity. Stanton Peele wrote on Rat Park and the sociocultural basis of addiction in his 1985 book The Meaning of Addiction. Although Peele is considered a renegade voice in the addiction community his ideas have slowly been more accepted. He’s even had a couple of podcasts with Tom Horvath of SMART Recovery.

For an extensive excerpt from Peele’s book, The Meaning of Addiction, with detailed descriptions of the original Rat Park experiment and follow up studies check out:


So it seems that the paradigm of Rat Park remained obscure over the decades. The research could be discounted because of confounding factors and difficulty of reproduction. Even problems arose because the morphine water tastes bad and researchers had difficulties getting the rats to ingest it.

Obviously trying to replicate Rat Park with human subjects would be unethical and probably illegal. We can look at some other studies that may corroborate the initial findings.

A study following Vietnam Vets contradicted the prevailing view at the time. The Pentagon believed there would be a huge problem with addiction in vets. Up to 20% of troops were addicted to heroin which was cheap and plentiful in Vietnam. Surprisingly 95% of returning vets that were addicted just stopped using without treatment. If you consider the war as being a stressed environment and being back home with friends and family Rat Park, the behavior of the vets seems readily explainable. Stanton Peele admits that this study, which preceded the Rat Park studies by 6 to 7 years, was a major influence in his thinking about addiction.

American Indians have had much higher than average difficulties with alcoholism. Survivors of the genocide of the Indians were herded into reservations that were usually the least desirable places to live. I think it’s safe to say a stressed environment may have played a part in their higher rate of alcoholism.

Poverty, hopelessness, being a minority all seem to be correlated with higher rates of drug abuse.

What does this have to do with recovery from addiction in general and SMART in particular? As addictive behavior progresses over time many addicts find themselves in a very stressed environment. They may have lost friends and family. They have strained relationships with people they are still in contact with. They may have lost jobs, have legal and financial problems and have medical issues to face. Such a stressed environment is difficult to stay clean and sober in. Newcomers face many challenges and it’s easy to see why relapse is common. What can we do when we admittedly live in a stressed environment? A constant reminder that recovery can allow you to repair relationships, resolve financial and legal problems and improve your health can help. I think doing a Hierarchy of Values early on can help in keeping your eyes on goals to aim for. In this sense it can help in Building and Maintaining Motivation. Personally I think building and maintaining motivation is the most difficult problem for newcomers. Many people would probably say Coping with Urges is the most difficult.

As recovery progresses, with the SMART emphasis on self empowerment, you have the ability to construct your environment to your liking. You can have good relationships. You can have a rewarding job and comfortable place to live. Lifestyle Balance with healthy amounts of fun, exercise and intellectual stimulation, is achievable. Eventually an addiction free life is it’s own reward.

Random notes from the facebook secret group. Irvine Sunday Afternoon

Free podcast from the SMART website. Bookmark this page and you can get access to many SMART podcasts. Also any new webinars and podcasts are listed here.

Cognitive Tools for Fighting Addiction and Beyond, An Interview With Dr Michael Edelstein


A skeptical doc is forced into treatment. Goes to show why we need choice in recovery.

A physician enters rehab. What happens next should disturb you.

Terrific TED talk. With their usual outstanding video and audio quality. Will take 15 minutes of your life to watch. But worth it.

See you Sunday

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