What Vietnam Taught Us About Breaking Bad Habits

By: Alix Spiegel

It’s a tradition as old as New Year’s: making resolutions. We will not smoke, or sojourn with the bucket of mint chocolate chip. In fact, we will resist sweets generally, including the bowl of M &Ms that our co-worker has helpfully po sitioned on the aisle corner of his desk. There will be exercise, and the learning of a new language.

It is resolved.

So what does science know about translating our resolve into actual changes in behavior? The answer to this question brings us — strangely enough — to a story about heroin use in Vietnam.

In May of 1971 two congressmen, Robert Steele from Connecticut and Morgan Murphy of Illinois, went to Vietnam for an official visit and returned with some extremely disturbing news: 15 percent of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam, they said, were actively addicted to heroin.

The idea that so many servicemen were addicted to heroin horrified the public. At that point heroin was the bete noire of American drugs. It was thought to be the most addictive substance ever produced, a narcotic so powerful that once addiction claimed you, it was nearly impossible to escape.

In response to this report, President Richard Nixon took action. In June of 1971 he announced that he was creating a whole new office — The Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention — dedicated to fighting the evil of drugs. He laid out a program of prevention and rehabilitation, but there was something else Nixon wanted: He wanted to research what happened to the addicted servicemen once they returned home.

And so Jerome Jaffe, whom Nixon had appointed to run the new office, contacted a well-respected psychiatric researcher named Lee Robins and asked her to help with the study. He promised her unprecedented access to enlisted men in the Army so that she could get the job done.

Soon a comprehensive system was set up so that every enlisted man was tested for heroin addiction before he was allowed to return home. And in this population, Robins did find high rates of addiction: Around 20 percent of the soldiers self-identified as addicts.

Those who were addicted were kept in Vietnam until they dried out. When these soldiers finally did return to their lives back in the U.S., Robins tracked them, collecting data at regular intervals. And this is where the story takes a curious turn: According to her research, the number of soldiers who continued their heroin addiction once they returned to the U.S. was shockingly low.

“I believe the number of people who actually relapsed to heroin use in the first year was about 5 percent,” Jaffe said recently from his suburban Maryland home. In other words, 95 percent of the people who were addicted in Vietnam did not become re-addicted when they returned to the United States.

This flew in the face of everything everyone knew both about heroin and drug addiction generally. When addicts were treated in the U.S. and returned to their homes, relapse rates hovered around 90 percent. It didn’t make sense.

“Everyone thought there was somehow she was lying, or she did something wrong, or she was politically influenced,” Jaffe says. “She spent months, if not years, trying to defend the integrity of the study.”

But 40 years later, the findings of this study are widely accepted. To explain why, you need to understand how the science of behavior change has itself changed.

Outsourcing The Control Of Behavior

According to Wendy Wood, a psychologist at University of Southern California who researches behavior change, throughout the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s scientists believed that if you wanted to change behavior, the key was to change people’s goals and intentions.

“The research was very much focused on trying to understand how to change people’s attitudes,” Wood says, “with the assumption that behavior change would just follow.”

So researchers studied how to organize public health campaigns, or how to use social pressure to change attitudes. And, says David Neal, another psychologist who looks at behavior change, these strategies did work.

Mostly.