During the Vietnam War, congressmen Robert Steele and Morgan Murphy made a shocking discovery. While visiting the U.S. Troops, they learned that over 15 percent of soldiers stationed in Vietnam were addicted to heroin.
And follow up research showed that the numbers were even more alarming. It turned out that 35 percent of the soldiers had tried heroin and as many as 20 percent were addicted to it1.
In response to these findings, President Richard Nixon created a special office to work with prevention and rehabilitation of drug addictions as well as researching and tracking the paths of the addicted soldiers when they returned home.
Lee Robins was one of the researchers in charge, and what she found completely upended the prevailing beliefs about addiction. At the time, heroin addiction was considered a permanent and irreversible condition. But as the U.S. Troops returned home, roughly nine out of ten heroin-using soldiers kicked their addiction nearly over night2.
The Power of Environment
In Vietnam, the soldiers spent their days in an environment that drove them toward heroin use. They were put under extreme stress, befriended other soldiers who were heroin users, and had easy access to the drug.
When the soldiers later returned home, suddenly they found themselves in an entirely different environment. In these surroundings, there weren’t any triggers promoting heroin use, and as the context changed, so did their behavior.
Compare this scenario with that of a typical drug user. Someone gets addicted at home or with their friends and goes to a clinic to get clean. The clinic is entirely empty of the cues that prompt their addictive behavior, which makes it much easier to quit. But as soon as the person returns home, all their old triggers will reappear and make drug usage much more likely.
It’s no wonder that you usually see relapse numbers that are the exact opposite of those in the Vietnam study. Usually, about 90 percent of heroin users become re-addicted as they return home from rehab3.
Remove the Cues, Change Your Behavior
We tend to think bad habits are the result of poor self-control. Most people believe that you need strong willpower to kick your unwanted behaviors.
But that’s not what the research literature suggests. When scientists analyze people with unusually strong self-control, they aren’t very different from anyone else.
What separates “disciplined” people is their ability to structure their lives in such a way that they don’t need to exert a lot of willpower. It’s not that they’re extraordinarily good at avoiding temptations — it’s that they spend less time in tempting situations4.
If you want to break a bad habit, you don’t have to become a more disciplined person, but you do have to create a more disciplined environment. And the way to do that is to eliminate the cues that initiate the unwanted behavior.
- If you watch too much television, cancel your streaming services.
- If you waste too much time on your phone, delete the most addictive apps.
- If you procrastinate too much, turn off your Internet connection while you work.
Cut off your bad habit at the source, and you’ll break it before it even gets started.
- Vietnam Veterans Three Years after Vietnam: How Our Study Changed Our View of Heroin
- How Permanent Was Vietnam Drug Addiction?
- Lapse and Relapse following Inpatient Treatment of Opiate Dependence
- Everyday Temptations: An Experience Sampling Study on How People Control Their Desires
Hat tip to James Clear for sharing the Vietnam drug addiction story in his great book Atomic Habits.