What Does “Rat Park” Say About Addiction?
One famous series of studies of addiction known as the “Rat Park” experiment has a lasting impact on how people and professionals think about it to this day. In the late 1970s, researcher Bruce Alexander noticed the fact that most rat studies of addiction involved rats who were kept in, effectively, solitary confinement, alone in cages by themselves. These studies showed heroin, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine to be highly addictive, so much so that rats would sometimes starve to death rather than stopping their drug use to eat.
Alexander thus became curious about whether rats who did not live under the same isolated conditions would show as strong of a preference for addictive drugs and designed an experiment to study the question. So he built a “rat park”— a large housing complex for his rats where they would be able to socialize freely, and that was full of “things that rats like, such as platforms for climbing, tin cans for hiding in, wood chips for strewing around, and running wheels for exercise.”
Then, he gave these fortunate rats access to morphine and measured how much of it they consumed relative to a solitary control group. Incredibly, the solitary rats were found to consume 19 times more morphine than the rat park rats. In a follow up experiment, when rats were deliberately made addicted to morphine and then given a choice as to how much to consume, the solitary rats continued to choose the drug but the rat park rats actively attempted to resist it despite the presence of withdrawal symptoms, presumably so they could soberly continue with their satisfying rat social lives.
The rat park model of addiction could partially explain the fact that most people who try even the most addictive drugs do not ultimately become addicted to them, while social conditions like poverty that limit opportunities are found to greatly increase addiction risk.
Alexander later found further evidence for this theory by studying alcoholism in Native American populations, whose cultures were destroyed by colonial conquest, coming to the conclusion that “the drug only becomes irresistible when the opportunity for normal social existence is destroyed.”
However, later researchers questioned the methodology and replicability of these experiments and the wisdom of extrapolating rat conclusions to human addiction problems. For instance, this oversimplification doesn’t account for other factors that might drive addiction, like genetic vulnerability, the lingering effects of trauma, and social rituals surrounding drug use.
It also doesn’t explain why drug use would be so rampant in populations who do not appear to be so obviously “in cages.” But Alexander also suggested that the “hyperindividualistic, hypercompetitive, frantic, crisis-ridden society” of modern day America “makes most people feel socially and culturally isolated.” And the chronically high rates of loneliness among Americans, a problem which the pandemic has only deepened, seems to suggest that he may have a point.
Whether or not they represent a literal truth about rats and drug use, the Rat Park experiments and their intuitive appeal do seem to tell a powerful story about addiction that has value in how we, as a society, should approach it. Maybe people who are struggling with a substance use disorder don’t need moralizing or punishment, but rather empathy, opportunity, and connection.
The rat park experiments also may offer some important advice when it comes to building a stable, lasting, recovery. If you isolate yourself from others and fail to engage in life, there will be little to keep you from relapsing into your addiction when the craving hits.
But if you instead cultivate meaningful relationships with others, fulfilling, stimulating hobbies, and career or charity pursuits that are in line with your values, there will be plenty of friends to reach out to for support, fun activities you can use to distract yourself, and purpose-driven reasons for you not to return to drug use. In time, you may even learn how you can help build these opportunities for growth for others.
In the meantime, just remember: if you do ever find yourself overwhelmed by the rat race, taking the time to decompress with something like a trip to a human park with a group of trusted pals might be just the thing to put you back in touch with the expansive, wide-open world that sobriety allows you to be fully present in.
A sober living community like the one offered by the Reco Institute is a perfect first step toward getting back in touch with your capacity for connection and engagement. To learn more about how we can help, feel free to reach out to us today at 561-665-5925.