Rat Park

The pioneering rat park experiment was first conducted by Bruce Alexander and colleagues at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia. This experiment was conducted to test the causes of well-evidenced ‘addiction’ in laboratory rats. Addiction in laboratory rats was established by showing that a rat held in a single cage with the ability to inject itself with drugs by triggering a specially designed mechanism, will do so and do so again and again. This evidence was used to assert that some substances were inherently addictive and that use lead to addiction.

In the rat park experiment, the researchers set out to see if the same kind of behaviour could be induced by the availability of the same substances in a different environment. Instead of a Skinner cage, rats were housed communally in a large area where they had access to drugs, food and water, nesting material, tin cans to hide and sleep in and wheels on which toexercise. They also had access to each other and so could socialise, form friendship groups and have sex. This environment was named ‘rat park’ by the researchers.

The results of the research are clear and have been repeated since by other researchers. Morphine and other drugs are not ‘irresistible’; given other options rats opt to use drugs on very few occasions and no rat uses it repeatedly or compulsively. When it comes to passing time and living as a rat, there are better options than morphine or any other drug and given the choice rats will do something else. This experiment undermines the whole notion of drug use as a disease (see disease model) and even the notion of addiction as is commonly understood (see addiction) it reinforces the evidence laid out in the Vietnam veteran studies (see Vietnam veterans studies) and the importance of context of drug use (see drug set and setting).

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