How I Discovered That Everything I Thought I Knew About Addiction Was Wrong

The evidence was clear to me: cocaine, heroin, and amphetamines are so addictive that they are deadly.

In many experiments, researchers found that lab rats with access to these drugs would take hit after hit until they actually died.

The drugs, it seemed, were so addictive that the most important trait of any animal – the survival instinct – wasn’t even strong enough to stop them from continuing! [1]

These studies led lawmakers to do anything they could to keep these drugs out of the reach of the public. And they led me to begin studying the science behind addiction.

I wanted to learn why people turn to drugs, how they become an addict, and what role the science of willpower might be able play in overcoming that addiction. 

Here is what I discovered.


Going into my research, I had little knowledge of the pharmacology of drugs, nor how they actually lead to an addiction. I was only equipped with the general knowledge given through public service announcements, drug awareness ads, etc. 

So the story was pretty clear to meif I did something like shoot heroin twice-a-day for the next 2 weeks, the chemical hooks in heroin will be so powerful that my body will become physically addicted to it.

That addiction will be so powerful that the drug will become the most important thing in the world to me. I will then be unable to work, I will lose touch with my family, and I will ignore all of my friends. Nothing will be more important to me than one more hit. 

Then my whole life will be in the toilet. And I will end up like the rats in the experiments; taking more and more until I finally overdose and die. A tragic story, and one I hope none of you have been exposed to.

However, as I began my research I learned a very different story from Johann Hari, who had been studying drugs and addictions for years. 

This hypothetical story begins with me getting in a terrible car accident. I break several bones in my body and I'm rushed off to the hospital. When I arrive, doctors would immediately fill up my IV with tons of diamorphine.

Diamorphine is a strong painkiller that is essentially a pure form of heroin. And, with those injuries, I would actually be given much more than two hits per day. 

There are millions of people around the world who have been through a story like this. So why, then, haven't I heard about a huge epidemic of hospital patients getting addicted to heroin?

At first, I thought that it was because the heroin on the street might be more powerful than you would get in the hospital. But it was actually the opposite! The heroin you get at the hospital is far better than street heroin; which is often mixed with other substances.

Yet millions of people have taken diamorphine without getting addicted. (Not to say there aren’t some people who get addicted to painkillers or other pharmaceuticals, but it certainly isn’t an inevitable conclusion). [2]

But, of course, some people do get addicted to drugs. And those drugs can ruin lives. 

So what is the difference between the heroin junkie and the hospital patient? I wondered. Is it possible that addiction is caused by something else besides the drug itself?


Then I came across a study that took place years after the initial studies on rats done by Dr. Bruce Alexander at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. Dr. Alexander saw that the rats in those studies had not lived a “normal” rat life. 

They were bread in isolated cages like the ones above. They didn’t have the opportunity to socialize, they didn’t have the chance to gather food, and the only interaction they had with others was being experimented on by humans.

This would be like us running experiments on someone who’s been institutionalized all of his lifeand assuming that people in normal society will act in the same way.

Alexander wanted to see if "normal" rats would respond in the same way to drugs. So he created “Rat Park”. It was a much larger cage, where rats could socialize, exercise, and gather food in a much more “real” environment.

To see if these rats behaved differently, he separated them into 2 groups: one group was born and bred in the isolated cage and the other group was born and bred in Rat Park.

He offered both sets of rats the option to drink heroin-laced water or plain tap water. And they could drink as much as they would like over the duration of the experiment.

Like in the initial experiments, the caged rats instantly drank the heroin. But the rats in Rat Park only drank it occasionally. In fact, they showed a significant preference for the plain water because it would not disrupt their social behavior.

Simply because these rats had more in their lives than the drug itself, they used it in moderation. [3]

I was blown away by these findings. Was it possible, then, that addiction had more to do with one's environment than the drug itself?


Upon learning about Rat Park, I remembered a personal story about a family member of mine who became an alcoholic. This new perspective seemed to make complete sense as to why he had a problem, but no one else in our family ever did.

It wasn’t because he had a genetic disposition.

It wasn’t because alcohol is so addictive that people can’t use it regularly.

And it wasn’t because he lacked all willpower to control himself.

It was because he worked only 3 months a year in Northern Canada when the ice melted. The other 9 months of the year, he had nothing to do. He had no purpose in his life. No reason to keep a clear head. He was bored, and he filled the gap with alcohol.

He was like the caged rats in the first study. Those rats had nothing in their cage but the drug. So that is what they turned to. Because they didn’t have alternatives, they indulged over and over again.

Almost everyone reading this right now has access to as much alcohol as they can buy. But you likely have something else in your life that is more important to you than getting drunk. Your family, your work, your responsibilities.

So you make the relatively easy decision to stay soberdespite the fact that alcohol is actually more addictive than many illegal drugs. [5]

Most of us are like the rats in Rat Park. We technically can indulge in alcohol, but we choose not to in order to remain positive members of society. Just like those rats could indulge in heroin, but they chose not to because they wanted to remain social.

Which is why at this point I was not surprised to learn from Dr. Carl Hart, a neuroscientist at Columbia University, that 80-90% of people who use drugs, even the worst drugs, don’t get addicted. And those that do, are the ones who are isolated from society without alternatives. [6]


Right now, the world's solution (especially in America) to people who use drugs, even those who are not addicts, is this:

Notice how that solution looks remarkably like this?

From a purely scientific standpoint, this solution seems backward, and may even make things worse. As we have learned, this isolation from society could, in fact, turn those drug users into drug addicts because:

  1. They will spend months, if not years, in "the cage"
  2. With a drug offense on their record it will be harder to find a job
  3. As an ex-convict without a job, they may lack purpose in their lives and turn to drugs to "fill the gap" as my family member did with alcohol

Thus increasing the likelihood that they turn from a drug user into a drug addict.

To be clear, I'm not making the claim that drugs are not dangerous. Nor am I making the claim that drugs should be legalized. I am merely sharing with you the information I have learned in my journey to applying the science of willpower to overcoming addictions. 

It is clear to me from this research that, in order to help drug addicts, a different solution is needed. One that helps addicts find purpose and meaning in their lives beyond drugs. And one that doesn't isolate them from the rest of us in "Rat Park." [7]

This, of course, is no easy task. It will require a lot of hard work and a lot of willpower. 


Understanding is the first step toward improvement. With this project, I set out to learn the root cause of drug addiction. By learning the cause, I could learn how the science of willpower might play a role in helping addicts overcome their addictions.

What I found is contrary to what I'd been told all of my life. 

Addiction does not strictly come from the drug, it comes from the environment. 80-90% of people who use drugs, any drugs, do not become addicted. Those who become addicted do so because they lack meaningful work, social support, or another purpose in their life.

Our current solution of sending drug users to prison may only increase their likelihood of becoming addicts as they are isolated from society. This research suggests instead that we should put our efforts towards helping them find purpose and meaning in their lives. 

And maybe they'll go on to become as successful as these 3 known drug users