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Breaking Bad Habits: How Vietnam War Vets Quit Heroin Cold Turkey

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It was 1971 and the Vietnam War was heading into its 16th year when two congressmen, Robert Steele from Connecticut and Morgan Murphy from Illinois, made a discovery that stunned the American public.

While visiting the troops in Vietnam, the two congressmen discovered that more than 15 percent of US soldiers had developed an addiction to heroin.

Later research, which tested every American soldier in Vietnam for heroin addiction, would reveal that 40 percent of servicemen had tried heroin and nearly 20 percent were addicted.

The discovery shocked the American public and led to a flurry of activity in Washington, which included President Richard Nixon announcing the creation of a new office called The Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention.

The office was created to promote prevention and rehabilitation of drug addictions and also to track and research the paths of addicted servicemen and women when they returned home.

It was this last part, the tracking of returning soldiers, that led to some surprising insights.

Lee Robins, one of the researchers in charge of tracking the veterans, found that when the soldiers returned to the United States, only 5 percent of them became re-addicted to heroin. In other words, 95 percent eliminated their addiction nearly overnight.

This finding completely contradicted the patterns of normal addiction.

The typical heroin cycle goes something like this: An addicted user enters a clinic to get clean, but upon returning home, the re-addiction rate is 90 percent or higher. Nearly every heroin addict relapses.

The Vietnam soldiers displayed a pattern that was exactly the opposite.

What was happening here? And, perhaps more importantly, what can it teach us about changing our own behaviors, building better habits and breaking bad ones?

How Addictions Get Shaped

Here is what happened in Vietnam: Soldiers spent all day in a certain environment. They were inundated with the stress of war. They built friendships with fellow soldiers, who were heroin users.

The end result was that soldiers were in an environment where multiple stimuli drove them toward heroin use. It’s not hard to imagine how living in a war zone with other heroin users could drive you to try it yourself.

Once soldiers returned to the United States, however, they found themselves in a completely different environment. Not only that, but they found themselves in an environment devoid of the stimuli that triggered their heroin use in the first place.

Without the stress, the fellow heroin users and the environmental factors that triggered their addiction, many soldiers found it easier to quit.

Compare this situation to that of a typical drug user. The individual picks up a bad habit at home, goes to a clinic to get clean (i.e. somewhere devoid of all the external stimuli that drive their habit), then returns to his or her old environment with all of the old triggers surrounding him or her and somehow, hopes to quit the bad habit.

It’s no wonder 90 percent of typical heroin users become re-addicted once they return home because they are surrounded by all of the things that caused them to get addicted in the first place.

Similar situations drive bad habits for all of us — from nail biting to smoking to drug use. Of course, none of this is to say that the change in drug use is purely due to environment changes. (It is likely there were a variety of factors at play.*)

But, the central idea is a solid one; the stimuli that surround you shape your behaviors day after day, often without you realizing it. Environment drives behavior.

To Change Your Behavior, Change Your Environment

The impact that external stimuli can have on behavior is vast. I have previously written about choice architecture and how it can be used to drive better health habits.

These effects go beyond the physical environment. Your friendships matter, too. One popular study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, tracked 12,067 people for 32 years and found that “a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57 percent if he or she had a friend who became obese.”

The people with whom we connect with and the places in which we live often determine our behaviors and habits as much as we do ourselves.

The good news is that, at least to a certain degree, your environment is within your control. If you want to change your behavior, then change your environment. Even small adjustments can make a difference.

One of the simplest ways to do this is to “design for laziness” and make default options healthier or more productive, which is a strategy I covered in detail here.

Here are some other examples to get your creative juices flowing:

Trying to build an exercise habit? Rather than going home after work, stop by a new place, like a park, hiking trail or a gym, and let the new environment be a blank slate for your new behavior.

Want to think more creatively? Move to a bigger room or surround yourself with expansive architecture away from the normal space that drives most of your thought patterns. (More on the link between architecture and behavior here.)

Hoping to buy healthier food? It is likely that you have some autopilot shopping habits right now. Try going to a new grocery store and developing a different routine of selecting food.

You may find it much easier to avoid unhealthy food when your brain doesn’t automatically know where it is located. (You can even use my outer ring strategy to avoid most of the processed food.)

By simply removing yourself from an environment that triggers all of your old habits, you make it easier for yourself to build new ones.

*There is an additional caveat to the Vietnam study worth mentioning. The percentage of soldiers who remained addicted after returning to the US is very similar to the percentage of addicts we typically find in society.

I’m not an expert on addiction and can’t say what the answer is, but it’s obvious that environment change is not a magic cure to all addiction problems. It is best to view this simply as another tool you can use to build new habits and break old ones.

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. To get strategies for boosting your mental and physical performance by 10x, join his free newsletter.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

Thanks to the NPR story that inspired this article and to Eric Barker for originally pointing me to that work.