Bruce Alexander: the researcher behind the Rat Park experiments
Bruce Alexander is the ‘star’ of my comic Rat Park, about the infamous addiction experiments from the 1970s and 1980s. This essay explains how Bruce Alexander’s thinking about addiction evolved after he concluded these rat drug studies.
I decided to make Rat Park a comic about the rat experiments only. My goal was to describe the researchers’ scientific method as concisely, accurately and entertainingly as possible. I chose not to present the experiments as ‘proof’ of anything regarding human drug-taking. Because, well, they’re not.
Yet the question hangs at the end of the comic. Bruce Alexander wanders the streets of Vancouver, haunted by the Rat Park findings. Wondering if they hold relevance for human behaviour. For human addictions.
This article discusses some of the research that Bruce Alexander has done since the Rat Park experiments.
The Globalization of Addiction
Anyone whose interest was piqued by my Rat Park comic should immediately track down Bruce Alexander’s book The Globalization of Addiction (2008).
The book makes several assertions which I will drastically paraphrase:
- People can become addicted to drugs, but it is not the drugs themselves that cause the addictions. (Though Bruce acknowledges that certain drugs have properties which lend themselves to addictions – e.g. heroin and alcohol).
- Drug addictions arise from deeper psychological problems/imbalances in a person’s life. They are a way for ‘socially dislocated’ people to cope/adapt to their psychological state. They form these addictions because a socially-dislocated life without an addiction would be too mentally crushing.
- Bruce conceives addictions as an ‘overwhelming devotion to a narrow lifestyle’. This is a type of ‘adaptive’ behaviour to supplant an otherwise bleak existence without social integration.
- Drug addictions are just one example of a multitude of addictions in modern society. For example:
- gambling addictions
- food addictions / compulsive eaters
- video game, internet or television addictions
- ‘shopaholic’ consumption
- addiction to long working-hours (e.g. working 60-hour weeks in the office)
- addiction to status and power (e.g. certain politicians / businessmen)
- addiction to religious zealotry (fundamentalists)
- These addictions are manifestations of the same psychological processes which create drug addictions. They are narrow fixations which offer a bearable substitute to otherwise unbalanced / unfulfilled life. They are the result of socially dislocated people adapting as well as they can to social circumstances.
- ‘Social dislocation’ theory of addiction has a long history of evidence. For example, the previously-responsible drinking habits of Scottish highlanders turned to alcoholism after their forced displacement by the British in the 18th century.
- Various factors in a person’s life can lead to social dislocation. However, the current dominant force is the alienating influence of unbridled free-market capitalism.
- Alexander argues that the influence of capitalism should be balanced or subordinated by other social institutions and traditions. He argues that we should make human well-being our primary concern, rather than the health of ‘the market’ or ‘the economy’.
Though I’m not an expert in psychology or addiction, I was impressed by the body of evidence which Prof. Alexander assembled in the book, as well as the humanity shown in his views of addicted people. It helped me see a bigger problem at work, and I no longer see drug addictions as a ‘special cause’ which are inherently caused by the substances themselves.
Video interview and other resources
This 2011 interview with Bruce Alexander was on public-funded TVOntario‘s long-form journalism show The Agenda with Steve Paikin. Watching Bruce discuss his views in this video was a big reason for me tracking down his book.
The video is also significant for being the first recorded time two Canadians mention ice hockey just three times in a 20 minute conversation.
Also check out Bruce Alexander’s website. Bruce is currently completing a book about the history of psychology.