for The Outline

In 1979, Bruce Alexander, a researcher at Simon Fraser University, separated rats into two cages, a stimulating one and an isolated one, and gave them morphine in order to measure the effect of environment on addiction rates.

The so-called “Rat Park” experiment was intended to debunk some of the flawed understanding around addiction at the time, specifically the notion that the drug itself was the most important factor in whether someone became addicted. The rats in both cages became physically dependent on the morphine, but the Rat Park rats consumed less morphine than the group in the boring cage. “Addiction isn’t you — it’s the cage you live in,” Alexander concluded.

The Rat Park study was flawed in its design and its findings, however, and it was ignored for almost three decades — until a group of experts rediscovered and started promoting it around 2008. The Rat Park study undermined one popular misconception about addiction, that chemistry of drugs is the single most important factor in addiction. But instead of pushing the popular understanding forward, it merely replaced that misconception with a new one: that environment is the most important factor. (continued)

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Katie MacBride is a freelance journalist, essayist, and co-founder/associate editor of Anxy magazine. Her work has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Daily Beast, Vice, Playboy, and Buzzfeed, among other publications. Follow her on Twitter: @msmacb


  1. In the middle of your article an ad. Not just any ad, but one that begins with, “SHOW YOUR GRATITUDE” above three images of, or relating to alcohol?


    1. I’m sorry about that. Unfortunately, I don’t have any control which ads show up on The Outline’s site. I am sorry it bummed you out, though. 😦


  2. I believe that Rat Park research, now 4 decades old, served an important function in its day, but, as you say, addiction is a human problem and needs to be studied in all its human complexity. But please do not attribute some other people’s overgeneralization of my rat research to me. if you would like to know what I think about addiction and the evidence behind it, please read my book on addiction, The Globalization of Addiction: A study in poverty of the spirit. (Oxford University Press, 2010) Hint: It is not about rats. Bruce Alexander.


    1. Thanks for reading and responding, Bruce. Feel free to let me know where you think I’ve misrepresented your views and I’ll do my best to correct myself or explain how I came to the conclusion I did.


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