Addiction: The View from Rat Park

In an interview of Alexis Pietak, I have heard about Rat Park and now I have found information in Internet.

Bruce K. Alexander
Addiction: The View from Rat Park

In the 1960s, some experimental psychologists began to think that the Skinner Box was a good place to study drug addiction. They perfected techniques that allowed the rats to inject small doses of a drug into themselves by pressing the lever. This required tethering the rat to the ceiling of the box with tubing and surgically implanting a needle, or catheter, into their jugular veins. The drug passed through the tube and the needle into the rats’ bloodstreams almost instantaneously when they pushed the lever. It reached their brains moments later.

Under appropriate conditions, rats would press the lever often enough to consume large amounts of heroin, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine, and other drugs in this situation.

The mass media of the day were quite excited about these experiments. The results seemed to prove that these drugs were irresistibly addicting, even to rodents, and by extension, to human beings. The conclusion that illegal drugs are irresistibly addicting fit well with the fearsome images that were being propagated about them. The rat research provided additional support for the War on Drugs of that day. Irresistibly addicting drugs certainly cannot be allowed to circulate in human society, especially if, as we were told, this is your brain on drugs…

A small group of colleagues at Simon Fraser University, including Robert Coambs, Patricia Hadaway, Barry Beyerstein, and myself undertook to test the conclusion about irresistibly addicting drugs that had been reached from the earlier rat studies. We compared the drug intake of rats housed in a reasonably normal environment 24 hours a day with rats kept in isolation in the solitary confinement cages that were standard in those days. This required building a great big plywood box on the floor of our laboratory, filling it with things that rats like, such as platforms for climbing, tin cans for hiding in, wood chips for strewing around, and running wheels for exercise. Naturally we included lots of rats of both sexes, and naturally the place soon was teeming with babies. The rats loved it and we loved it too, so we called it “Rat Park”.”

We ran several experiments comparing the drug consumption of rats in Rat Park with rats in solitary confinement in regular laboratory cages. In virtually every experiment, the rats in solitary confinement consumed more drug solution, by every measure we could devise. And not just a little more. A lot more.”

It soon became absolutely clear to us that the earlier Skinner box experiments did not prove that morphine was irresistible to rats. Rather, most of the consumption of rats isolated in a Skinner box was likely to be a response to isolation itself.”


One response to “Addiction: The View from Rat Park”

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  1. Interesting. I heard on the radio some more general critics referring to ethological studies. In many cases animals are pushed to have a behavior biased by the researcher’s expectation. Concerning drugs we known today the criminal motivation which started the whole myth. Drugs are just medication, made illegal for special interests only. The evidences are multiple and easily available on the net. Glad to see the myth of irresistible addiction debunked. It explains also that some drugs might help surviving hard social conditions.