Carl Hart: Rats Given Sweets, Playmates CAN Turn Backs on Cocaine

Research conducted by a Columbia University psychologist is turning stereotypes about drug addicts on their heads. Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology, has been researching drug addiction for years with the hopes of learning the truths about drugs, drug abuse and addiction. His ideas about addicts, backed by research, have been published in a book called High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. Hart presents both his personal experiences with drugs and addiction and the facts from research to make a compelling case that drug abusers are rational. He challenges the idea that drugs always turn people into monsters who simply can’t stop using. With this latest perspective on drugs, addicts and the war on drugs, the real causes of drug abuse and addiction are beginning to be uncovered. Drug warriors may be skeptical of his work, says the New York Times, but some other scientists are impressed. “Carl’s overall argument is persuasive and driven by the data,” Craig R. Rush, a psychologist at the University of Kentucky who studies stimulant abuse, told the newspaper. “He’s not saying that drug abuse isn’t harmful, but he’s showing that drugs don’t turn people into lunatics. They can stop using drugs when provided with alternative reinforcers.”

Drug Addicts as Crazed Monsters

Hart grew up in a poverty-stricken neighborhood in which drug addiction was common and disastrous. He saw terrible things happen to people and drugs often seemed to be behind the incidents. Early experiences led Hart into a career researching drugs and addiction. When he began his work, he believed, as many do, that drugs always turn people into monsters … particularly how hard drugs like heroin and crack seem to make people compulsively seek out their next fix, regardless of consequences. This prevailing viewpoint has been part of popular culture and also part of scientific research. Famous studies have shown that rats in laboratories will press a lever to get a hit of cocaine in spite of negative consequences. Starving rats will even press the lever rather than opt for food. This seems to line up with what we see in many drug addicts. They lie, cheat, steal and imperil their own health just to use their drug of choice. As Hart further investigated addicts, though, he began to see a different picture.

Drugs and Rational Behaviors

Hart conducted research using crack addicts who volunteered to participate. They stayed in a hospital for several weeks and were given crack to smoke each morning and a few times throughout each day. The addicts were also given choices. Sometimes, they were offered either a hit of crack or $5 in cash or vouchers. When the hit of crack was large, the addicts chose it over the money. When it was smaller, they often chose the money, even though they would not get it for several weeks. The research was also conducted with meth and meth addicts and the results were similar. In both studies, when the addicts were offered more money, $20 for instance, they most often took the money, regardless of the size of the drug hit. Both studies prove that drug addicts and drug abusers are not necessarily controlled by their addictions. They are still able to make rational decisions. When the money was worth more than the drug, they took the money rather than the high.

The Truth About Drug Addiction

Based on his work, Hart has offered up a controversial new idea about drugs and addiction. He believes that the stereotype of addicts being completely controlled by drugs is false in most cases. Addicts are capable of not using their drug, as long as rational alternative options are available. Combining his personal experiences with his research, Hart has a different idea about drug use. He suggests that drug abuse is highly situational. Many people abusing drugs, he says, had issues long before the abuse began. They may have been extremely poor, have come from a fractured family, have experienced abuse or any number of other traumas. He sees the choice to use drugs in these situations as a rational one: to bury the pain or to escape from the difficulties of daily life, drugs are a viable option. The idea even helps to explain the behavior of rats in the classic addiction experiments. “The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats,” Hart told The Times. “The rats that keep pressing the lever for cocaine are the ones who are stressed out because they’ve been raised in solitary conditions and have no other options. But when you enrich their environment, and give them access to sweets and let them play with other rats, they stop pressing the lever.” Hart hopes his message will shed new light on the real problems underlying drug abuse and addiction. It is easier, especially for politicians and policymakers, to put the blame on highly addictive substances. To face up to the ills of society that lead to drug abuse is more complicated. With more research like Hart’s, though, ideas and policies may begin to change.

Scroll to Top