The Rat Park

Here’s a great article on some of my favorite research, how creating a Rat Park (i.e., paradise for rats), leads to remarkably low rates of spontaneous drug use rates among animal models.  As the article goes, this research by Bruce Alexander “led him to conclude that drugs — even such hard drugs as heroin and cocaine — do not cause addiction; the user’s environment does.”  The Rat Trap piece over at The Walrus Magazine goes on to examine the Rat Park research, and then Alexander’s subsequent work on environmental causes for addiction.

One good quote: “Alexander’s research reveals that addiction rates are low when societies are stable, and they rise at times of social disruption. ‘The extreme case is the aboriginal people,’ he says. ‘You don’t have anything identifiable as addiction until you screw up their culture, and then alcoholism becomes a major problem. In extreme cases, addiction rates can go from zero to close to 100 percent.’  Such spikes suggest that environment is a stronger determinant of addiction than chemistry. As Alexander puts it, if you put a carton of eggs under a hydraulic press, it’s true some of the eggs will crack before others, but the problem isn’t the eggs. It’s the press.”

Still, understanding which eggs will crack, and why; and how and why specific cracks happen, and not other cracks, all provide an important role for more proximate research.  It is that mix, of environment through individuals down to mechanisms and then back out, which is particularly challenging but interesting in addiction.  And, in the end, that type of research might lead us to develop theoretical models that will go beyond treating either environments or genetics as hydraulic press models, imprinting us with their forms.  In any case, for getting started, it is crucial to recognize the context, the overall lay of the land, and Alexander’s work provides us one good (though not complete, for me at least) perspective on that.

7 thoughts on “The Rat Park

  1. This is so timely, Daniel, with what I’ve been reading and hearing about in Australia. Recently, the new federal government has decided to say ‘sorry’ to the Aboriginal ‘Stolen Generation,’ the children who were taken from their parents and placed in orphanages and foster homes (more on this at our sister site, Culture Matters — see the blogroll). At the same time, one of our American PhD students, nearing completion (not a neuroanthropologist, but I’m working on her), has written a short piece on the difference between racism in the US and Australia, so I’ve been talking to her about that.

    Anyway, the long and short of it is that I’ve been going over all the things that Australians have said to me about Aborigines, and over and over again, even mild mannered, seemingly conscientious Australians, have voiced what, to me, sounds like pretty blatant racism. And at the nub of a lot of the racism is the stigma of alcoholism. No matter what I say to them in response, they come back to the prevalence of alcohol abuse as an irreducible ‘fact’ that allegedly explains health disparities, unemployment, and prejudice (although, in fact, the statistics are not nearly so clear as some like to think).

    The Rat Park research is, finally, a fascinating way to counter the argument, ‘But there must be something wrong with the Abos [not my term], so many of them are drunks.’ It’s SUCH a frustrating thing about the situation in Australia. (Don’t worry, I don’t think Australians are that much more racist than Americans; it’s just that Americans, typically, don’t share their views on the subject with me, perhaps because they’re better at reading the signs of my leftist leanings from the subtle performative signs).

    But I’m going to have to refer back to the posting on Rat Parks on Culture Matters because of the discussion of the Federal apology to the Stolen Generation.

  2. Greg, if you haven’t seen David McKnight’s book, From Hunting to Drinking: The Devastating Effects of Alcohol on an Australian Aboriginal Community, be sure to check it out given what you just said. McKnight passed away in 2006, here’s an obit:,,1807418,00.html

    And the book at Amazon:

  3. I’ve never heard about the Rat Park study before, but I find it extremely appealing! I’d be interested in reading theories about what specific “values of Western life” Alexander or others believe “have created an environment of rootlessness and spiritual poverty that leads more and more of us to addiction.” Additionally, I’d like to read more about the policy implications of Alexander’s theories– according to the Walrus article, Alexander does not believe we can design an effective drug policy to combat addiction. However, I still think policy makers have a role in reducing drug dependence among their citizens. Alexander argues that “The only way we’ll ever touch the problem of addiction is by developing and fostering viable culture.” To me, this is an ideal solution, but not very practical… though perhaps there is a way to draft public policies that successfully transform our culture…
    Professor, can you point me to some additional articles or books that contain more information about the Rat Park study and the theories/cultural analysis it has inspired?

  4. Here’s a blog entry, “Hooked on the Myth of Instantly Addictive Cigarettes” over at Reason Magazine which takes on the idea of drugs, in this case cigarettes, as instantly addictive, with some good reflection on how ideology trumps actual research design and results. The results can still be informative, but not in the way they often get peddled in the media and our popular imaginations.

    Here’s the link:

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