The Rat Park Experiment:
A Study in the Role Community Plays in Helping Addicts
The Rat Park Study, which was published in 1981 by Bruce Alexander is the stuff of viral Facebook posts and excitement for a number of very good political and ideological reasons. The answers it gives us aren’t as significant as the questions it raises, and is so often true in treatment, complex realities cannot be easily controlled for in an experimental environment.
The background of the Rat Park Experiment
For those that are unfamiliar, involves a number of rats being caged alone, some being caged separately, and others being together in a fantastic rat heaven where there was stuff to play with, enough food for everyone, playmates, sex, and a lot of good stimuli. Each of the rats housed in separate cages were given to water bottles, one of which was filled with morphine, and the other with water. The experiment seemed to indicate that the rats housed in the least favorable conditions chose the morphine the most often. In this case, the rats caged alone. The rats caged together took less morphine, and the rat park rats took the least amount of morphine. The conclusion that Alexander and others have drawn from this is that addiction is (at least partially) a response to environmental stressors.
The problem with this line of reasoning is obvious. No human being on earth lives in anything remotely similar to a Rat Park. Environmental stressors abound. Marriages get shaky, jobs become stressful, grades slip, and whatnot. None of this seems to accurately predict on an individual basis, whether a specific person will become an addict or not. So ascribing the root cause of addiction to environmental stressors is not scientifically rigorous to say the least, and dangerous at most because it takes the locus of our control outside of our own hands.
What We Can Learn
Nonetheless, there is much that can be learned from this experiment. Those that are recovering from addiction do need to cut down on the amount of stressors in their lives. Using does become a way of managing stress, and stress is a natural part of being alive. Even under ideal conditions there is no way of avoiding it. But giving folks that are recovering from addiction the support they need, and a community that is counting on them to stay clean, and helping one another through the process is still a vital part of maintaining sobriety.
While the Rat Park Meme may be a dangerous oversimplification, addiction counselors have to be mindful of adding stress to a situation that is already stressful, painful, difficult, and heartbreaking for both the individual seeking treatment, and for their family. And one of the key ways to we manage these stressors, is by learning more effective ways of dealing with them.
We Can Overcome
In a perfect world, free of any stress at all, it may be possible to say there would be no or less addiction, but even that is unlikely. More and more evidence seems to indicate both a genetic component, and an environmental component to addiction disorders, and knowing why the addiction happens is not necessarily an effective means of treating it. Even when we tell folks it’s not entirely their fault for having an addiction disorder, it is on the other hand, always within their power to overcome it.