In 1981 an experiment was carried out in Vancouver. The results were published in a journal called, “Pharmacology, Biochemistry, and Behaviour”, but at the time, they received little attention.
Bruce Alexander and his colleagues decided to build a house for rats. It measured 200 square feet, and they made it as comfortable and beautiful as possible. They designed a birthing room, provided plenty of food, painted the walls with nature scenes, and laid down bedding and toys for the rats to play with and explore. They also set up ordinary cages.
The experimenters then put a number of rats into the house, and a number of rats into the cages. They gave the rats a choice between water, and sugar water laced with morphine. (Rats are known to have a sweet tooth). The rats in the lovely, welcoming rat house greatly preferred plain water to morphine sugar water. The rats in cages ignored the plain water and kept themselves sedated – or high – on the morphine water.
Before this experiment, it was widely believed that drugs like heroin, morphine and cocaine were inherently addictive – no matter what the situation, using these drugs would always lead to addiction. In fact, the results were so controversial that they have been mostly ignored. It seems much easier to believe that addiction is a disease, or that it is due to an ‘addictive personality’ than to accept that the chances of becoming addicted to any drug depend very much on the situation.
This research should have changed the world. It should have changed our town planning, our social welfare systems, our education systems, and the way we design our world. Instead we continue to think of addiction as something beyond our control, as a problem we’re born with rather than a symptom of the worlds we grow up in.
For more information, see the very accessible ‘Opening Skinner’s Box’ by Lauren Slater, or click on the following link for the original article: