The Rational Choices of Crack Addicts
Sometimes people do dumb things. And sometimes people do dumb things because they don't have many—or any—smart alternatives.
Such is the finding of Dr. Carl Hart, an associate professor of psychology at Columbia University. He grew up in Miami, and because his parents were both addicted to crack, he was reared by his grandmother. When he went to college to study, he, like many other scientists, thought crack was only addictive in and of itself. To be sure, it is addictive. But what he found from further research, though, was surprising to him: Drug addiction is largely contextual. Dr. Hart explains this in yesterday's New York Times article The Rational Choices of Crack Addicts:
This article impressed me. Dr. Hart's research impressed me. While reading about his work, I had two main takeaways:“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.”
- If addiction is about one's environment, this means so much in terms of one's agency. That is, agency—once again—is shown to be extremely powerful. People can change their behavior, even under extreme circumstances. It's baffling to me—and so wonderfully perfect.
- If addiction is about one's environment, this means so much in terms of service. That is, service—once again—is shown to be extremely powerful. People can help others change their behavior by offering positive alternatives in an otherwise dreary world. I think about the person on the side of the road, asking for money, and I hear a friend say, "I'm not giving him anything because he'll just spend it on drugs." Maybe so. But maybe not. Maybe that person just needs a positive alternative. Or maybe his life is so utterly full of bad options, that using drugs is the most rational choice. Either way, it's my responsibility to change his environment. As a student, I may not be able to do much of that now, but someday I will be able to. And I think someday, God will hold me accountable for that. I think he will say to me and to everyone, "What did you do to offer someone positive alternatives? What did you do to make his life better?"
Thing I'm thankful for: the luxury of hosting a dessert party. I have a good life.