Monday, March 12, 2012
An Important Lesson from Vietnam
In May 1971, a congressional fact-finding mission came back from a visit to Vietnam with disturbing news. The Army was reporting that as much as 15% of the servicemen in country were addicted to heroin. Richard Nixon immediately established The Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention — dedicated to fighting the consumption of drugs. There was an obvious concern that heroin trafficking and use in the U.S. would skyrocket with the return of servicemen addicted to the drug.
Nixon ordered the commissioner of the new office to specifically research what happened to the addicted servicemen once they returned home. At the time, heroin was considered the most addictive of all drugs. Conventional wisdom was that 90% of heroin addicts relapsed into use after trying to dry out.
As part of the study, the new commissioner of the Office of Drug Abuse Prevention was given wide access to U.S. Servicemen for study. Everyone leaving Vietnam at the end of their tours were required to undergo urinalysis. Those that were found to be users were required to dry out in Vietnam before returning to the U.S. The soldier that dried out and returned home were then monitored carefully in the U.S. The best estimate for the relapse rate of the servicemen after their return 5%.
It turned out that while heroin use was important and satisfying for the servicemen in one behavioral environment, the dramatic change in the environment that occurred by rotating back to the United States was sufficient for the vast majority of soldiers to break the habit.
The results of this testing regimen in the 1970's began in the following decade to help change the way behavioral scientists view behavior modification. Alix Spiegel, who covers psychology for NPR, has an interesting article on what this experience with Vietnam veterans meant for behavioral science at NPR's website.
Charles Duhigg of the New York Times staff has another suggestion. Focus on the reward you seek by a habit as a means of coming up with alternative pathways to the reward. The goal is to shake it up.