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How Do People Really Get Addicted to Drugs, and What’s the Best Way to Help Them?

In the 1960s, scientists performed experiments on rats to deduce the cause of addiction.

Rats were kept in barren containers called “Skinner Boxes.” Upon pressing a lever, these rats received a dose of a drug: heroin, morphine, amphetamine, and more. In almost every case, the rat would press the lever into a fairly speedy death.

Essentially, we assumed the drugs themselves were so utterly addictive, that even one hit could turn a respectable person into a junkie. Is that completely true?

We’ll examine several studies and factors that shed light on why people get addicted to drugs, and some of the best ways to treat an addiction.

Limited Options and Negative Environments

In the 1970s, new experiments were conducted that turned the former “Skinner Box” rat study on its head.

Rats were introduced to a new cage called “Rat Park” with plenty of food, water, other rats, and colorful tubes and wheels to play in. When given the choice between drugged water and regular water in this positive environment, the rats nearly always chose the regular water.

A similar study was conducted on human beings. Professor Carl Hart, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology at Columbia University, has studied drug use for 22 years, and is a former drug user and seller.

Hart invited regular cocaine users to his lab at Columbia and offered them a choice: $5 or a hit of crack cocaine worth more than $5. When confronted with this choice, about 50% of the time, participants chose $5 over the cocaine. Hart repeated this experiment with meth users, and garnered the same results. When he raised the amount of cash to $20, meth users predominantly chose the money. Hart’s conclusion? The problem is not just drugs. The problems are “poverty, unemployment, selective drug law enforcement, ignorance, and the dismissal of science around these drugs.”

We’ve covered the environmental and socioeconomic factors. Now, let’s discuss relationships.

Poor Relationships and a Lack of Connection

A recent Ted Talk by Johann Hari, a British writer and journalist, highlights isolation in addiction. Hari cites studies on shrinking numbers of U.S. friendships in the past two decades, and argues that human beings are driven to abuse drugs when they are unable to bond with fellow human beings.

When those bonds do not occur, Hari argues that people then turn to drugs or other addictions—even smartphones and video games. Hari noted that the “opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection.” On the surface level, this provides a much-desired answer to the question of how addictions start. After all, a common factor for substance abusers is isolation and disconnection from friends, family, and eventually, general society.

Even deeper, many stories of addiction start with a common theme: feeling disconnected from others, or being unhappy and isolated.

On the flip side, successful stories about freedom from addiction frequently include stories of new connections: a pet dog. An NA or AA meeting. A change in friends.

However, can we attribute the descent into drug addiction or ascent into recovery to a lack or gain of meaningful relationships?

What’s the Most Important Factor in a Drug Addiction?

The problem with environmental and connections arguments is that they provide an incomplete picture of many people in the throes of addiction. The group we’re talking about? A growing number of users who actually live in “Rat Park.”

It would be easy to say that an addict is simply cornered into an addiction by difficult life circumstances or lack of perceived connections. It’s not a stretch to understand why a disconnected orphan living in complete poverty might turn to heroin for a break from reality.

It’s harder to understand why a student from a stable Catholic household in Sacramento would turn to drugs, or a seemingly normal couple with children in Cincinnati. How can we explain the choices of addicts who engage in drug abuse in spite of relatively abundant means and healthy relationships?

One former addict puts it this way:

…you can have all the options in the world, and yet if you don’t personally see them as providing a better life than heavy substance use, then they will lose to heavy substance use.

We at Pat Moore Foundation recognize the crucial impact of free will—both in addiction and in recovery. One may support an addicted friend or family member with a plethora of better opportunities and better connections, but the decision to choose sobriety is hers alone.

The Most Effective Way to Treat an Addiction: Holistically

At Pat Moore, we seek to view addiction and recovery in a balanced way. We know that every addict’s story is different. We also know that successful recovery is not instant or easy, and there’s more to sobriety than just a change in environment or an influx of brand new friends. At the Pat Moore Foundation facilities, you will find the following treatment services:

  • A safe, comfortable environment

  • Medically supervised detox programs

  • Personal and family counseling

  • Activities to encourage mindfulness and healthy connections with others

If you are currently addicted to a substance or are supporting addicted friends or family, consider reaching out to Pat Moore Foundation today. We have a heart for sustained recovery, and we see every patient not as a project, but as a human being on a journey to a happy and healthy life free from addiction.

Take the first step and get in touch with us today.


Pat Moore Foundation Joins the D’Amore Healthcare Family.
D’Amore Healthcare welcomes the Pat Moore Foundation into their healthcare family to better serve the needs of those suffering from addiction, mental health comorbidity, and dual diagnosis.

Our Professional staff at D’amore Healthcare is here for you. If you have any questions regarding help for yourself or a loved one please contact our admissions department 24 hours a day at 714.375.1110 or fill out the contact form.

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