New research from a psychologist suggests environmental factors play a large role in drug addiction:
Then, after that sample of crack to start the day, each participant would be offered more opportunities during the day to smoke the same dose of crack. But each time the offer was made, the participants could also opt for a different reward that they could collect when they eventually left the hospital. Sometimes the reward was $5 in cash, and sometimes it was a $5 voucher for merchandise at a store.
When the dose of crack was fairly high, the subject would typically choose to keep smoking crack during the day. But when the dose was smaller, he was more likely to pass it up for the $5 in cash or voucher.
“They didn’t fit the caricature of the drug addict who can’t stop once he gets a taste,” Dr. Hart said. “When they were given an alternative to crack, they made rational economic decisions.”…
“If you’re living in a poor neighborhood deprived of options, there’s a certain rationality to keep taking a drug that will give you some temporary pleasure,” Dr. Hart said in an interview, arguing that the caricature of enslaved crack addicts comes from a misinterpretation of the famous rat experiments.
“The key factor is the environment, whether you’re talking about humans or rats,” Dr. Hart said. “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.”
But, might it not be easier as a society to blame individuals for drug addiction, a lack of willpower, a lack of good decision making rather than deal with the deeper underlying issues in impoverished neighborhoods? As a sociologist, I look at a story like this and see the power of the social conditions to influence an individual’s behaviors: if society offers few good options, drugs seem like a more rational alternative. This work might also fit with arguments Sudhir Venkatesh has made in the last decade or so about urban gangs: they are often characterized as blood-thirsty killers but they might be responding more rationally to contexts with few legitimate ways to achieve societal goals. In fact, as The Wire also suggested, these gangs might be set up as business-like structures that happen to use illegal means to reach commonly sought-after social goals like economic comfort and respect.