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 over 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 went something like this: an addicted user would enter a clinic and get clean, but once they returned home, the re-addiction rate was 90 percent or higher. Nearly every heroin addict relapsed. The Vietnam soldiers were displaying a pattern that was exactly the opposite.
What was going on here? And, perhaps more important, what can it teach us about changing our own behaviors, building better habits, and breaking bad ones?
Before we talk about how to get started, though, I wanted to let you know I researched and compiled science-backed ways to stick to good habits and stop procrastinating. Want to check out my insightsenvironment. 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 surrounded by an environment that had multiple stimuli driving 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 each soldier returned to the United States, however, they found themselves in a completely different environment. Not only that, 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 to trigger 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 return to their old environment with all of their old triggers surrounding them, and somehow hope to quit their bad habit. It’s no wonder 90 percent of typical heroin users became re-addicted once they return home—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 was purely due to environment changes. (It is likely there were a variety of factors at play.