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The Importance of Attractive Alternatives


In the 1960’s, researchers conducted multiple studies with rats on the effects of drugs. The experimenters placed rats in a cage with two levers, one with drug-laced water and the other with plain water. Rats would obsessively press the lever for the drug-laced water until they overdosed and died. The conclusion then was that the chemical hooks in the drug were the most important factor in addiction; that consumption drives continued use. This made sense to a lot of people as drugs produce an almost instantaneous and powerful effect.

In 1979, Dr. Bruce Alexander did some additional experiments like the previous studies. However, in addition to giving rats access to the two levers, he placed them in an enhanced cage, or “Rat Park,” where they had access to toys, other rats, and were free to roam around as they wished. Remarkably, the rats who lived in rat park rarely preferred the drug-laced water and when they did, it was used intermittently with zero overdoses. Based on this research, Dr. Alexander concluded that addiction is in large part driven by environmental factors. When the rats in his experiments were given attractive alternatives to drugs and water, including a community of other rats, the desire for drugs decreased significantly. 

Four decades later, we are still trying to fully understand what drives addiction and other related conditions, but there is a consensus among experts that it is a complex combination of genetic, environmental, and behavioral factors. No doubt, our environment influences our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, not just with addiction, but also other mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, stress, self-esteem, and anger. Here are some examples:

Environment is more of a risk factor

  1. Your apartment is cluttered, messy, and disorganized which causes stress and anxiety.
  2. You live in a home where you used to drink, which leads to traumatic recall.
  3. You and your partner frequently communicate in unhealthy ways, which causes lingering frustration and resentment.
  4. You keep alcohol and drugs in your home while trying to stay sober in early recovery.

Environment is more of a protective factor

  1. You have friends who are supportive and compassionate.
  2. You have a wide variety of hobbies and interests, which make you feel fulfilled.
  3. You get involved in neighborhood activities, which make you feel a part of the community, something greater than yourself.
  4. You remove alcohol, drugs, and drug paraphernalia from your dwelling to limit access.

Keep in mind that environmental factors may have both risk and protective aspects, to be identified on a continuum. For example, your partner could be a risk factor because they drink in front of you during your early recovery, causing you to feel uncomfortable and jealous, but also a protective factor because they consistently provide emotional support when you feel triggered. 

After months in quarantine with no end in sight, our attractive alternatives are drastically limited with many of us struggling to find new ways to nurture the positive forces in our lives. Despite an unprecedented level of uncertainty, however, I have been fortunate to witness incredible strength, courage, and resilience from people who continue to cultivate novelty and enrichment through creative thinking. To this end, many clients benefit from first doing a comprehensive assessment of the people, places, and things in their lives with respect to their goals and values. This may be done with a therapist who can provide an outside perspective on how to create a supportive environment. Please call Symmetry today to meet with one of our skilled Chicago counselors at 312-578-9990!


Hari, J. (2015, June). Everything you think you know about addiction is wrong [Video]. TED Conferences.

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