Sunday, October 27, 2013

Why Not Try Life in a Rat Park?

On the heels of news that being poor causes bad decisions, rather than that bad decisions make you poor, comes the revelation that drug addiction isn't what we've long thought it is either.

First, check out this video discussion with neuroscientist Carl Hart. Or you can read about Hart's work here. You know how we all think crack and meth are instantly addicting for just about anyone who tries them? That's completely wrong.
"Eighty to 90 percent of people who use crack and methamphetamine don’t get addicted,” said Dr. Hart, an associate professor of psychology. “And the small number who do become addicted are nothing like the popular caricatures.” 
Hart's experiments focus on offering deferred rewards to addicts:
Dr. Hart brought meth addicts into his laboratory for similar experiments — and the results showed similarly rational decisions. He also found that when he raised the alternative reward to $20, every single addict, of meth and crack alike, chose the cash. They knew they wouldn’t receive it until the experiment ended weeks later, but they were still willing to pass up an immediate high.
Which came first, Hart asks -- the drug use or the lack of opportunities, which left no vision of a future? In that circumstance, why not take drugs that make life fun for a while? As the Times story put it, Hart's own "cousins became destitute crack addicts living in a shed, but they’d dropped out of school and had been unemployed long before crack came along."

According to Hart, “the key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats. The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they’ve been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options. But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever.”

Which calls to mind the experiments of Bruce Alexander. Alexander hypothesized that lab rats weren't naturally drug-seeking, as had been shown in other experiments -- it was the nature of their miserable, isolated existences in tiny cages that made them self-anesthetize. So he built a perfect rat paradise to see whether they still went for the drugs. His park was
spacious, with plenty of intellectual stimulus and other rats to play with. He moved heroin-addicted rats into the park and found that the compulsive behavior abated to the point of disappearance -- in other words, whatever "rewiring" had taken place could be unwired by the improvement of their living conditions.
Alexander's key conclusions would have startling effects if translated into public policy related to drug abuse and poverty itself:
Addiction is more a social problem than an individual problem. When socially integrated societies are fragmented by internal or external forces, addiction of all sorts increases dramatically, becoming almost universal in extremely fragmented societies.

Addiction arises in fragmented societies because people use it as a way of adapting to extreme social dislocation. As a form of adaptation, addiction is neither a disease that can be cured nor a moral error that can be corrected by punishment and education.
Yet another reason to decriminalize all drugs and deal with the true addicts through treatment, paid for with the savings from not arresting and jailing so much of the population. And to increase the minimum wage or have guaranteed minimum incomes. What could it hurt to try these options? The current state of poverty and hopelessness hasn't worked so far.


If you prefer your social science reading in comics instead of text, check out Rat Pack by Stuart McMillen, who explains Alexander's work in visual form with lots of details on the how the experiment was conducted.

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