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Rats, Levers, and Parks: Designing Better Choices
Why behavior change can fail
Once upon a time, there were some researchers. These researchers wanted to understand addiction, so they designed a simple experiment.
They put rats in cages with food, water, and a lever. The lever would release a dose of morphine or some other drug so the researchers could assess how often the rat would pull the lever and use the drugs.
Once the rats figured the lever out, they pulled it until they died. A Cocaine lever killed them quickly. Morphine, a little slower. But across most of these experiments, the result was the same. Give the rat the drug lever and he’ll keep pulling it till he dies. He never cuts himself off. Drugs are insanely addictive, and we shouldn’t blame people for dying from addiction. The power of the drug is too much to resist.
Then a smarter group of researchers had another idea. If you were stuck in a cage with nothing but food, water, and drugs, you’d probably pull that lever until you died too. Most of us would. I’d absolutely go full Scarface if the alternative was rolling around a cage suckling water hoping for salvation.
So they devised a new experiment: Rat Park. Instead of putting the rats in jail, they put them in a little rat Utopia. Space to run around, friends to play and mate with, abundant delicious food, everything a rat could hope for. And in the corner, a little lever giving access to the same drugs as before.
Now what? The rats still tried the drugs, but they didn’t become slaves to them. They didn’t get addicted. They got high, then went back to running around and making little babies with all their Rat Park companions. The drugs were never the problem. The environment was the problem! If we figure out what environmental changes need to happen to help anyone escape addiction, then addiction and overdose would never be an issue. It’s not the rat’s fault, and it’s not the drugs, it’s the park. Addiction is a park problem.
The problem is: we’re not rats. We don’t have benevolent researchers to create a perfect park for us.
One of our greatest strengths and weaknesses as humans is our second-order thinking. We can think about thinking, we can conceptualize what will happen in the future based on current decisions, and we can try to override our instincts to pursue some greater payoff. We’re not just instinctual rats reacting to our environments.
The problem is that we dramatically overestimate how much power “we,” the ideal, rational, second-order-thinking self has. We can read about the rat pulling the cocaine pellet lever until it dies and laugh about how stupid the rat is between checking Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. We imagine ourselves to be these omnipotent masters of our fate when we’re more often the stupid rat in the cage pulling the lever until we die.
Rat Park was excellent for demonstrating how important the environment is in shaping addiction, but we can never create a similar situation to the one the rats were thrust into. Not only because we can’t create an idyllic playground to give us everlasting satisfaction. But also because there is no one to create it for us. The rats didn’t have to do anything, they were dropped into an addiction-free lifestyle. If the rat in the first cage had a second lever that did nothing, but once he pressed it 10,000 times he’d be dropped into rat park, he’d never get there. He’d press the lever a few times and get nothing from it, then go back to getting high. Most of us are in a situation closer to this one.
What I like about Rat park is it gives us a conceptual framework for the struggle against our lesser selves. Call it whatever you want: the Shadow, the Id, the Horses, the Devil, we’re all locked in a battle between our rational best selves and our lever-happy animal selves, and the better our tools are for helping the animal side’s self-interest align with our more rational side’s self-interest, the more successful our behavior change will be.
I was lying before when I said there was no benevolent researcher designing the park for us, there is. It’s us. Our rational, better selves are the researchers designing the environment for our animal brains. We decide if it’s a cage or a park. If we put the rat in front of the lever and say “just resist it!” Or “stop being so weak!” The rat is going to die. But if we can slowly build a big happy park for the rat to run around in, it just might make it.
This is why some advice around habit formation, discipline, and willpower can be less useful. If you focus on reaching Rat Park through good habits, you might condition yourself to sit in the cage pulling the second lever hoping for a future rescue. If you think discipline or willpower are your salvation, you’ll try to beat your rat into sitting on the floor staring at the lever resisting it, maybe while blasting some Jocko affirmations and sipping pomegranate white tea.
But maybe behavior change is more about figuring out how much power your researcher can exert in the limited time it’s in the driver seat. Assume the rat is stupid and will do whatever immediately satisfies its little rat brain. How do you create the easiest environment to guide it towards doing what you want it to do? What are the biggest changes you can make to move your rat from the cage to the park? Maybe all the undesirable behavior is just the rat getting high to escape some unsatisfying aspect of its environment. What might be causing that dissatisfaction?
Maybe you don’t need a better-trained rat. You don’t need to hide the levers. If the rat is in a small dark cage, alone, eating pellets and staring at the lever, what else would it do? We need to spend what brief periods of researcher time we get building a better park. One with friends, food, space, games, and love.
Build the park and the lever gets forgotten.