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What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits

What Heroin Addiction Tells Us About Changing Bad Habits Shots Health News NPR


Those who were addicted were kept in Vietnam until they dried out. When these soldiers finally did return to their lives back in the U.S., Robins tracked them, collecting data at regular intervals. And this is where the story takes a curious turn: According to her research, the number of soldiers who continued their heroin addiction once they returned to the U.S. was shockingly low.

"I believe the number of people who actually relapsed to heroin use in the first year was about 5 percent," Jaffe said in 2011. In other words, 95 percent of the people who were addicted in Vietnam did not become re-addicted when they returned to the United States.

This flew in the face of everything everyone knew both about heroin and about drug addiction generally. When addicts were treated in the U.S. and returned to their homes, relapse rates hovered around 90 percent. It didn't make sense.

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Our environments affect our behaviors.

"Once a behavior had been repeated a lot, especially if the person does it in the same setting, you can successfully change what people want to do. But if they've done it enough, their behavior doesn't follow their intentions," Neal explains.

Neal says this has to do with the way that our physical environments come to shape our behavior.

"People, when they perform a behavior a lot — especially in the same environment, same sort of physical setting — outsource the control of the behavior to the environment," Neal says.

Context matters.

It's important not to overstate this, because a variety of factors are probably at play.

But one big theory about why the rates of heroin relapse were so low on return to the U.S. has to do with the fact that the soldiers, after being treated for their physical addiction in Vietnam, returned to a place radically different from the environment where their addiction took hold of them.

"I think that most people accept that the change in the environment, and the fact that the addiction occurred in this exotic environment, you know, makes it plausible that the addiction rate would be that much lower," Jaffe said.

We think of ourselves as controlling our behavior, willing our actions into being, but it's not that simple.

It's as if over time, we leave parts of ourselves all around us, which in turn, come to shape who we are.

I don't think one can overstate the power of environment to shape behavior... it's the primary determining factor.  Think of it this way:

1. Environments are continuous and infinitely persistent, "always on" when you're in them

2. Will power expressed in opposition to environmental conditions (physical, emotional, moral, intellectual, etc.) is not easily cultivated... and even when will power is strong it remains a limited quantity that can be exhausted within any individual... most of us will cave in to, or be shaped by, any environmental forces we cannot escape and must contend with:

How many succeeded building sand castles at the beach with the tide coming in... 

How many succeeded being good humans living in Germany when the Nazis became omnipresent...

How many succeeded not being a Bill Clinton when a Monica Lewinsky made his genitals into a clock...

Our environment and reptilian brains may not always win 100% of the time, but behaviorally that's the way to bet 90% of the time.

The best way to resist temptation is to avoid tempting environments?

Succinctly put!

Now I just need to learn to do it!

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