Why You're Deceived by "The Example Rule"—and How to Find the Truth

Frightened for her life, Alison Cebulla jumped out of the way of the car rolling toward her. Then she looked up…

“The car was actually just parked there,” she told me. “It wasn’t moving at all. I was so sleep deprived, I was hallucinating all the time. So I looked like a crazy person.”

This was Alison’s lowest point in her addiction to methamphetamine.

“I grew up in a pretty low-income neighborhood. There were some pretty traumatizing moments such as being sexually harassed on the bus ride home from older male high school students.

I would say the majority of kids with whom I attended elementary school didn't end up graduating from high school. Many of them were young drug users, even if just marijuana and early drinking.

To paint a picture, my hometown feels much like Baja, Mexico: dirt streets or streets without sidewalks, ramshackle homes, all surrounded by big monoculture farmland. My family didn't really fit init still baffles me to this day why my mom decided to buy a house there.“

Starting her senior year of high school, Alison fell in with a group of friends who would party regularly. For this group, that meant a lot of drinking.

"There was a lot of marijuana smoking but that never appealed to me," shares Alison. “But towards the end of the school year, I found out my best girlfriend was doing this really sexy-sounding drug, cocaine, so I gave it a try.

I loved feeling alert and also having this taboo secret with my friends. It made me feel important and also sneaky."

Becoming Addicted

When Alison got to college, she felt out of place. She didn’t have the intense study habits of her peers, she didn’t live in the dorms, and she wasn’t used to the urban setting. She found she didn't have good coping skills and remembered how fun it was to connect over drugs and alcohol.

So she once again turned to a crowd who used drugs to find a place of comfort. However, this new group exposed Alison to something she’d never had before—methamphetamine.

She started using the drug regularly, and eventually she couldn’t stop. She would use meth for 3 days straight and feel completely empty and depressed without it. To snap herself out of the funk, she would find herself taking more.

This led to a terrible path of indulgence, addiction, and her life unraveling.

She lost 15lbs because she wasn’t eating.

She was robbed, nearly sexually assaulted, and frequently broke down crying.

And finally her health was so bad that she couldn’t make it through her rugby practice.

Luckily, that moment playing rugby woke her up to the fact that she had a problem. It motivated her to check herself into rehab, overcome her addiction, and never touch meth again.

Alison's story sums up exactly what we think we know about meth addiction—but in reality, Alison is about as far from the stereotype there is.


The broad strokes of Alison’s addiction meet the stereotype perfectly.

  1. Girl comes from a low-income neighborhood.
  2. Starts experimenting with drugs in high school.
  3. Doesn’t fit in with the “good kids” at her college.
  4. Begins hanging out with a “bad crowd” of people.
  5. Gets exposed to one of the most dangerous drugs, meth.
  6. Once she starts, she can’t stop and becomes an addict.
  7. Her life begins unraveling as she uses it more and more.
  8. Eventually she hits “rock-bottom” and has to get treatment.

But a closer look reveals that she is completely the opposite of the stereotype.

When Alison was in high school, she was a brilliant student. She took multiple college-level courses, got great grades, and had amazing options to attend college.

The friends she was experimenting with opened her mind to a realm of possibilities about what she could accomplish and who she could become.

The college she attended was the University of California at Berkeley—one of the top schools in the country.

And the “bad crowd” she began hanging out with mostly consisted of successful San Francisco neuroscientists who would engage her in the same stimulating conversations that opened her mind to possibilities.

This group, however, didn’t have any knowledge of how to reduce the harms of the drug. Meth is a stimulant that keeps you focused and energized for hours. So because she lost sleep, she had to take more to simply have enough energy to function—leading to dependence and addiction.

For her treatment, it wasn’t as simple as "detox" or "the 12 steps." What truly helped her overcome her addiction was talking to a therapist who was once addicted to cocaine. She helped her find the root cause of the problem and discuss things she couldn’t with anyone else.

Finally, this experience didn’t ruin her life. In fact, Alison believes it improved it! Because it allowed her to meet people and confront issues she may otherwise not have.

"The biggest thing that I got out of it was being exposed to people I wouldn't have normally been around. It opened up my heart to empathy and compassion for so many different types of people.

That is the biggest gift I never asked for. It has helped me in my work as a life coach in understanding the traumas that can hold people back from being their best.

My only regret is hurting people I loved," Alison shares. "My family and friends were concerned for me. They probably thought they could lose me forever."

But they didn't. Alison got the help she needed and today she is a successful wellness coach, writer for the Huffington Post, and speaks at conferences all over the U.S. about trust, intimacy, and intuition.

*Read Alison's full story here.


As you read through Alison’s story, you probably built up a picture in your mind about her.

You may have thought of someone with weak willpower, bad teeth, and scabs all over her body—rather than an extremely bright Berkeley student who was spending time with successful San Francisco neuroscientists.

Yet, 85-90% of people who use a drug even as demonized as methamphetamine never even become addicted to it as Alison did. [1]

And 6 out of 10 people who do become addicted have a story similar to Alison’s:

  1. They realized they needed help.
  2. They started talking to a therapist.
  3. They confronted the deeper psychological issues they were facing.
  4. They overcame their addiction by working on the root cause of the problem. [2]

In fact, only about 4% of people who use methamphetamine become seriously addicted—meaning the drug is causing serious harm to their health or lifestyle, and they cannot stop. [3]

Compare that to a 34% obesity rate in America and one may even conclude that meth is less harmful than junk food! 

  Methamphetamine death statistics: [4] , Junk food (HEART DISEASE) death statistics: [5], Obesity statistics: [6]


Methamphetamine death statistics: [4] , Junk food (HEART DISEASE) death statistics: [5], Obesity statistics: [6]

 Why is it, then, that even after reading Alison’s story and knowing the statistics, will you still walk away from this article feeling exactly the same about meth?


As I wrote about in my article on fear, your fears of dangerous things are based in a primitive part of your brain known as the limbic system.

This primitive brain doesn’t think rationally. It thinks in terms of images, emotions, and feelings. And it burns those images and feelings into your memory so you instinctively know to avoid potential dangers. 

The more examples of these images and feelings you're exposed to, the more dangerous you will believe the threat is. This is known as “The Example Rule.” [7]

The Example Rule cycle with methamphetamine goes like this:

The more times we repeat this cycle, the more we believe it’s true.

Meanwhile, we don’t hear the stories of Alison—the bright student who did meth, realized she had a problem, and got effective treatment. Her story simply isn’t as compelling as the bright student who did meth, got addicted, and overdosed.

And we surely don’t get the examples from the 85-90% of people who use the drug occasionally without a problem. We would shame those people for their drug use or even treat them like criminals.

No one felt that shame more than Alison.

"It took years to get over the shame of feeling like a criminal drug addict," she told me.

"9 years after rehab is when I finally came out and shared my story publicly with my blog readers. I had kept it so secret because I felt like there was something bad about me. Then I decided to own my story and that it could be an empowering one instead of a shameful one."

Undoubtedly, there are thousands of other people feeling that shame who will never come forward as Alison did.

So if after years of The Example Rule giving you plenty of images of the dangers of meth, some science blogger comes along and tells you that those images represent an extreme minority, you won’t believe him.

Because the images and feelings are burned so deep inside your memory that your primitive brain tells you they must be true. [7]


The Example Rule doesn’t just apply to things we believe are bad, it also applies to things we believe are good.

If we see "organic" on a food label, we'll assume that the product is good for us!

If we’re told by parents and teachers that a college degree is the ticket to getting a good job, we’ll take out those student loans!

If we see everyone counting calories, we’ll believe that’s the most important factor in our health.

All of the examples have some level of truth, of course. Meth is harmful, many organic foods are healthy, a college degree is generally a good thing, and calories are a factor of your health.

The problem occurs because we believe these examples are absolute facts. We don’t dig deeper into the complex issues that lie beneath, and we distrust any information that go against our examples.

So we treat meth users without a problem as criminals.

We don't check how much fat and sugar is in the organic food.

We don’t consider the high paying jobs you can get without a college degree.

And we adhere to the “calories in, calories out" philosophy.


Unfortunately, there is no easy way to defeat The Example Rule.

Like I said earlier, even readers who trust the most won’t fully believe that a demonized drug like methamphetamine isn’t as addictive as we’ve been told—I didn’t believe it either!

Stats…facts…rationality…unfortunately none of those are enough to overcome the primitive brain’s feelings and emotions. But you can fight back.


The first step is to simply take a moment of self-awareness.

When you begin to feel that fear, disgust, or belief that something has to be true, pause. Begin to question whether your feelings are based on real evidence, or examples you have seen through the media, TV, rumors, etc.

Taking this moment to pause will turn on your pre-frontal cortexwhere your willpower resides—and give you more willpower to try to find the truth. [8]


Once you’ve taken this moment, allow yourself to become curious. Ask yourself:

Why do I feel this way about methamphetamine, organic food, etc.?

This curiosity feels good. Just like you have a desire to fear something, you also have a desire to be curious—especially when it comes to health, prosperity, and justice. [9]

So embrace your curious desire and allow it to motivate you to find the truth.

This motivation to find the truth can overcome your primitive brain’s feelings and emotions the same way it can overcome your primitive brain’s desires to indulge and procrastinate. [10]

Despite the feelings, emotions, and motivations of the primitive brain, your modern brain is the one in control. And remembering how important the truth is as an individual or as a society might just give you the willpower to find it. 


Alison Cebula was not who I thought she would be when I was lucky enough to meet her. I was expecting someone who fit the “meth head” example I’d seen through anti-drug ads, the media, and Breaking Bad.

Instead I found an intelligent person who felt out of place, made some mistakes, realized she had a problem, and got the help she needed to take care of the bigger problems she was dealing with (read Alison's full story here).

She is amongst the 96% of people who use methamphetamine without it completely ruining their lives. But we don’t hear their stories, we hear about the 4% who do have a serious problem with it.

And we believe those 4% are the majority because of The Example Rule. The more we see examples of something, the more likely we are to believe its true—regardless of the facts.

To overcome this tendency, you must pause, take a moment for self-awareness, and tap into your inner curiosity to understand the truth. Because like an inspiring purpose, your primitive brain is no match for your genuine desire for the truth.