It’s The Cages

September 15, 2022

“It’s the cages” This is the epiphany British journalist Johann Hari had when studying addiction and the most salient point he makes in his mind-blowing TED Talk titled “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong” or more affectionally known as “Rat Park”. 

I have watched this TED Talk time and time again and shared it with hundreds of people since my wife first played it for me five years ago. Johann found in his research that addiction doesn’t behave at all like we assume or as we have been told. We’ve built up myths around addiction and those myths tend to lay a lot of blame at the feet of the addict- which is easier than the truth and also allows the rest of us to feel a sense of moral superiority. 

What Johann Hari found is that addiction is much more a result of an individual’s surroundings than their shortcomings. The first example he uses to demonstrate this point, is heroin use during the Vietnam War. American soldiers stationed in Vietnam were found to have incredibly high rates of addiction, and studies found that 20% of all troops stated that they were addicted to heroin. Which, as you can imagine, was a huge concern for the US government considering tens of thousands of men would be returning home addicted. 

But something happened that no one could have predicted. One year after the war ended, only 5% of those returning soldiers continued to use heroin. Which is shocking considering that there is a 90% rate of recidivism in the US when an addict returns home from rehab. It was a stunning result that pointed to a new understanding of how addiction really works.

The other example he used is Rat Park. Researchers studying drug use in the 60’s put rats in cages and provided them with a clean source of water and a water source laced with heroin. They found that the rats ingested the heroin water to the point they no longer could feed themselves. In essence, the rats used to the point of death. This formed scientific addiction research for decades to come, but Dr. Bruce Alexander looked at the study and realized there was a major flaw in how it was conducted. Dr. Alexander thought that placing social animals in a sterile cage with nothing to do might have influenced the results. So he created Rat Park. 

Rat Park was an enclosure built in Dr. Alexander’s garage that was large enough for lots of rats and rat activities. He wanted to make sure they had a chance to have fun, be social and get exercise. His theory proved exactly right. The rats in Rat Park were given clean and laced water and he found that the rats barely touched the heroin water. To go even further, his team took rats that had been thoroughly addicted while in cages and placed them in Rat Park, where they completely, and almost immediately, stopped using the heroin water as well. 

What those two experiments show us is that our behaviors are largely shaped by our environments. This is the reason when we look at a rundown street or neighborhood, we make assumptions about the people that live there. We conclude that someone living on a bad block is an addict or a criminal. But we should take the next step in our thinking. Was it the addicts and criminals who stopped maintaining all the buildings, pulling all the weeds, did they abandon all the houses and stop reinvesting in infrastructure? 

Are addicts and criminals responsible for the condition of a neighborhood or subject to it? As my wife once put it, “Do you really think all the addicts in town just ‘decided’ to move into this particular neighborhood?” When you think a little deeper into the issue, you have to conclude that a neighborhood of people just didn’t up and decide to descend into crime and addiction, but instead, a neighborhood declined in its condition and its residents adapted. Humans are the most prevalent mammal on the planet because of our ability to adapt, but unfortunately that survival mechanism cuts both ways. We adapt to beautiful places, but we also adapt to terrible conditions. Our surroundings affect us, our surroundings shape our behavior. 

In the book Talking with Strangers by Malcom Gladwell, he discusses the idea of “coupling”. Coupling is the notion that an individual’s behavior often lays dormant until coupled with an environment that seems conducive to such behavior. Gladwell focuses on anti-social or criminal behavior, finding that crime tends to occur in places where it seems acceptable to commit crime. This is the reason we feel threatened by certain places. It actually makes perfect sense, because we can tell intuitively that those places are probably dangerous, but it’s actually because those places look dangerous that they probably are. 

Gladwell’s book points to numerous examples of this phenomena. Suicide, crime, and prostitution, all acts that we assume people perform because of their circumstances, but instead seem to require an environment where the behavior becomes permissible. The assumption always having been, such behavior can’t be regulated, if policed or deterred it will just occur elsewhere, but in fact, Gladwell found, if the location where those acts occur is policed, cleaned up or no longer accessible, it’s been found that those acts don’t just move elsewhere, they decline all together. 

A study completed in North Philadelphia by Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that razing, clearing and reseeding vacant property can reduce crime in the surrounding block by as much as one third. Simply addressing vacant and abandoned property reduces crime by nearly 30%! This again indicates how much appearances and conditions influence our behavior.

People are much more a product of their environment than we have previously understood. It’s hard to see outside of the conditions in which you live. It is considerable harder to lead an elegant life in squalid surroundings. We get so excited about rags to riches stories because they are the exception. Most people are never able to lift themselves out of poor conditions. It is, in fact, impossible to lift yourself up by your own bootstraps. 

Our surroundings are constantly influencing our choices and our behaviors. This is why we might quiet-down when entering a grand church, because we are experiencing a sense of reverence. Studies done on consumer shopping patterns found that walkers tend to turn around and head back to their car when they come upon an empty lot. Similarly, all of us have had the experience of finding ourselves amongst rundown apartments or on a seedy block and it drags us down. The feeling of being on a street with collapsing houses… it’s depressing, it’s off-putting, it’s uncomfortable. 

Such scenes affect us emotionally. Think about how such a block of blighted apartments affects you when you walk past. What judgments you make about the people that live there, what you think their lives might be like. Now imagine you lived there. Imagine you woke up in that building and you came home to the same building to have dinner. You think it’s depressing just to look at, what might it be like to live in such a building, such a block or such a town. 

You are what you eat? No. You are where you live. You are what you see. You become your surroundings. As we begin to better understand these relationship between people and place, we start to realize how critical it is to our health to take care of our places. To build better, to manage maintenance more rigorously. When you realize that aesthetics aren’t just window dressing, but a force constantly shaping our well-being, it becomes a hell of a lot more important. 

The link between our places and our physical, mental and social health is undeniable. The research is there, but we know it all from personal experience as well. We live it every single day of our lives. Different places make us feel different, so we tend to seek out places that makes us feel good. Places that make us happy, or content. We avoid places that stress us out, worry us or make us sad. We avoid them because we know the cost. Each and every one of us, if we lived in those places, we would change. I might want to pretend that I would change a blighted place, but let’s be honest, it would change me. 

I would experience mental health issues as well, were my surroundings dragging me down 24 hours a day, making me anxious, giving me a sense of hopelessness and despair. I would not overcome my surroundings, I would succumb to them. 

So maybe someone in your town wants to scoff at the idea of code enforcement, maybe someone wants to challenge you on the idea of design standards or some jackass is arguing that it isn’t your place to tell someone else how to maintain their building or what they can build on their property and how they can build it. They couldn’t be more wrong or more dangerous. The choice to allow conditions to decline is deadly serious, the decision to build an environment that is unhealthy for people is devastating. 

When a house declines, so does the family that calls it home. When a block declines, so does every person that lives on that street. When a community declines, so does every resident. Every weed not pulled, every brick not repointed, every busted window not repaired is another insult, another blow to your town’s civic self-esteem, and another victory for apathy. But it’s even more- those broken windows and vacant buildings are a sign of distress, an indicator of depression and anxiety. It’s a tangible sign of community’s mental health struggles and a harbinger of addiction. See, people don’t just up and decide to make poor choices, they simply can’t find any more reasons to care when there is very little to care about. 

This is what we have to remember, we are all subject to our surroundings, we all adapt to our environment. Every one of us is constantly being shaped by the places we live. We don’t have any choice in this matter, we can’t help but succumb to our surroundings, but we do have a choice in how we shape those places. We have agency in creating the environments we inhabit, At the end of the day, we as a society have a decision to make, do we want to keep building cages or do we deserve our own rat park. 

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