Believe it or not, much of what you hear about addiction and drugs is based on studies done on rats. One of the biggest assumptions people have always been lead to believe was that drugs are addictive by merely being exposed to them. That’s why heroin has such a scary reputation and why anti-drug activists promote the idea that marijuana is the gateway drug to harder drug use.
Rats are actually very social animals and learn quickly. Researchers assumed they could generalize any of their findings to apply to human behavior.
Basically, in the 1950s and 60s, rats were placed in solitary confinement in cages and taught how to self-administer a morphine solution by pressing a lever. This created a great deal of stress. Over time they continuously chose the drug solution over food or water and killed themselves. This freaked out researchers who generalized that the same thing would happen to humans and so education, perception and public policy would contribute to the support for the war on drugs.
In the early 1970s, some people questioned this research and redid it, only this time they added an enriched environment making the rats more comfortable. They placed both males and females together, and created the appearance of being outdoors. There was plenty of space to move around and to interact with other rats. There were plenty of toys and things to do to keep them happy and well-adjusted. The rats were stress free. They called this new environment, Rat Park. Over time, the rats rejected the morphine solution even as it was mixed with a sugary substance that rats really like. At the same time, the group of rats that remained isolated the same way they were in the first experiments continued to choose the morphine solution. The researchers then placed addicted rats that had been using morphine for nearly 2 months, and placed them in Rat Park, and they too no longer chose the morphine. Thus, calling into question, conventional thinking.
The takeaway from Rat Park was to pose the question, “Are people that do not become addicted experiencing their life like a “park” or are people that become addicted experiencing their life as a “cage?”
The “cage” is now a metaphor for the people, places, things, and experiences in our environments that influence our learning and behavioral choices.