The Genesis of Some Beliefs About Addiction

In reviewing the history of beliefs and research about food addiction, familiarly known as FA, it can be seen how the significance of an animal experiment might be misconstrued. One of the most fascinating stories to come from science in recent years is that of the Rat Park.

This is the introduction to it, with quotations from one of the participants, Professor Emeritus Bruce K. Alexander who described the background and climate of thought at the time:

In the 1960s, some experimental psychologists began to think that the Skinner Box was a good place to study drug addiction. They perfected techniques that allowed the rats to inject small doses of a drug into themselves by pressing the lever…

Under appropriate conditions, rats would press the lever often enough to consume large amounts of heroin, morphine, amphetamine, cocaine, and other drugs in this situation…

The results seemed to prove that these drugs were irresistibly addicting, even to rodents, and by extension, to human beings.

This fits right in with the narratives being spun to promote the War on Drugs, so officialdom was happy to accept every implication suggested by the behavior of the rodent dope fiends.

The bedrock

In the previous post, we learned that before any theory is posited, certain basic things are acknowledged, whether consciously or subliminally, to be true. Certainly, most studies in Dr. Pretlow’s field take for granted that childhood obesity is undesirable, and should be avoided. Most, not all — but that subject is for another day.

As a basic premise, Prof. Alexander points out that rats are rats, and goes on to ask,

How can we possibly reach conclusions about complex, perhaps spiritual experiences like human addiction and recovery by studying rats?

Fair enough! Regarding the specially bred lab rats, he also notes that, in nature, members of the same species are gregarious, industrious, and community-oriented. A life sentence in a locked metal box is probably as traumatic for them as it is for us. If human prisoners in solitary confinement could pull a lever and receive doses of heroin, they would. In order to derive information from these kinds of observations at all, it is necessary for the scientists and their audiences to share a core belief that any of this is normal.

Rodent experiments somehow gave rise to another core belief, that…

[…] the great appetite for morphine, heroin, and cocaine that earlier experiments had demonstrated in rats housed in the tiny solitary confinement cages proved that these drugs were irresistible to all mammals, including human beings.

Alexander called this the “Myth of the Demon Drug,” which went on to become “the backbone of mainstream theories of addiction in those days.” It generated a sub-theory:

[A]lthough many rats and people are not permanently transformed into addicts by exposure to a demon drug, those who have a “genetic predisposition” are. The ones that are transformed are still said to have been robbed of their will power, as if the drug had “flipped a switch in their brain.” The result is that these transformed rats and people have a “chronic relapsing brain disease” called addiction.

There is nothing inherently wrong with looking for a genetic component to FA and/or obesity. But a genetic predisposition might have been more zealously sought by factions that needed to explain why addiction does not befall every creature exposed to substances. Genetic predisposition may be needed to patch up holes in some other theories. Or at least, a dubious researcher could not be blamed for suspecting as much.

(To be continued…)

Source: “Addiction: The View from Rat Park,”, undated
Source: “Rat Park versus The New York Times,”, undated
Image by Sarah Laval/CC BY 2.0

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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