This story is excerpted from page 203 through the first paragraph of page 208 of the book Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath. This story is brilliant in that it expresses an idea that is central to the thesis of The Independent Whig: Morality is a synergistic system that is greater than the sum of its parts. It does so better than the Whig ever could.
Mike Romano was born in 1950 and raised in Milwaukee, the youngest of four brothers. His dad was a handyman who fixed plumbing and heating fixtures. His mom had a commercial art degree; she stayed at home to raise the boys, taking jobs from time to time to pay the bills.
Romano had a temper. In high school, when he was 18, he got into a fight and threw a guy through a window. Afraid of what would happen in court, he enlisted in the army. He figured he was going to be drafted anyway. The court let him go.
Romano eventually ended up being assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam, an elite and well-respected unit of paratroopers. The soldiers of the 173rd had an open secret, however: rampant drug use. Others nicknamed them “jumping junkies.” Coming into the military, Romano had no real drug experience. He tried to keep his nose clean with the jumping junkies.
A few months after he arrived in Vietnam, a Claymore land mine detonated near him, and he was struck in his right hand, forearm, and foot. He was taken to a hospital in Camron Bay for recovery. That was where he first tried opium.
He quickly became hooked, like so many others around him. Even when he transferred to other hospitals, his supply wasn’t interrupted. He mostly smoked opium-laced joints, but it was also easy to find liquid opium and even opium chewing gum (not to mention other drugs, such as LSD and marijuana). His addiction continued to torment him throughout his thirteen-month tour of duty.
Romano’s fall into drug use was a typical story during the Vietnam War. The White House was so troubled by reports of drug use among soldiers that it commissioned a study to investigate the scope of the problem. The results were disturbing. Before the war, the typical soldier had only casual experience with hard drugs, and less than 1 percent had ever been addicted to narcotics. But once in Vietnam, almost half of the soldiers tried narcotics, and 20 percent became addicted. Demographics did not predict who would become drug users in Vietnam – race and class were irrelevant.
The drug use started early. Twenty percent of all users started in their first week in Vietnam, 60 percent within the first three months. Oddly, drug use did not seem to be triggered by trauma. The researchers found no statistical relationship between drug use and the difficulty of soldiers’ assignments, or the danger they faced, or the death of friends. Unlike most soldiers, Romano started using opium because he was injured. For most soldiers in Vietnam, drugs were simply a fact of life, a part of the culture.
Government officials were terrified by what would happen when thousands of drug addicts began to return to America. Military and civilian leaders worried that the country’s drug-treatment programs would be flooded, stretched far beyond capacity. They worried that the vets might not be able to hold down jobs, that they might turn to crime.
Mike Romano was one of the people the officials were worried about. When he finally boarded his flight back to the United States in 1969, headed home to Milwaukee, he smuggled back with him a stach of opium-laced joints.
Then his life began to change. A week or two after his return home, he was driving with friends in town when he saw a girl he’d known in grade school. “Stop the car!” he said. He chased her down. She was working as a countergirl at a nearby drugstore. “I thought she was very beautiful,” said Romano.
The two started dating. She caught on fairly quickly that Romano was an addict, and she put pressure on him to stop. He tried to quit a few times, but each time he started to feel sick as withdrawal pains kicked in, and then he’d begin using again. Meanwhile, he started work – construction and house painting and other temporary jobs – and he started taking art classes at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. He got a job there designing promotional posters for bands who played at the student union.
After a few quit-and-relapse cycles, he began to wean himself off opium, and within about a month he was clean. He hasn’t touched opium since. What we see in Mike Romano’s life seems like an almost impossible change story: an opium addict who recovered. Mike Romano was one of the lucky ones.
Or was he? White House researchers continued to investigate the drug problem among returning soldiers, and a puzzle started to emerge. Following up with the troops who returned home, the investigators called them eight to twelve months after their return to ask about their ongoing drug use. During the war, 50 percent of soldiers had been casual users, and 20 percent had become seriously addicted, meaning that they used drugs more than once a week for an extended period of time and experienced withdrawal symptoms (chills, cramps, pain) if they tried to stop. But when investigators conducted follow-up, what they found blew their minds. Only 1 percent of the vets were still addicted to drugs. That was essentially the same rate as existed before the war. The feared, drug-fueled social catastrophe had not occurred. What had happened?
People are incredibly sensitive to the environment and the culture – to the norms and expectations of the communities they are in. We all want to wear the right clothes, to say the right things, to frequent the right places. Because we instinctively try to fit in with our peer group, behavior is contagious, sometimes in surprising ways.
Imagine that your job was to design an environment that would extinguish drug addiction. You could take drug-addicted U.S soldiers, drop them into this environment, and feel confident that the forces within it would act powerfully to help them beat their habits. Think of this environment as an antidrug theme park, and assume that you can spend as much as you want to construct it. What would your theme park look like?
It might look a whole lot like Romano’s neighborhood in Milwaukee.
You’d want to surround the former soldiers with people who love them and care about them – and who treat them as the drug-free persons they once were. You’d give them interesting work to do – perhaps designing posters for rock bands – so that their minds would be distracted from the joys of opium. You’d create well-publicized sanctions against drug use. You’d keep the drug economy underground, making the former soldiers sneak around to obtain and use drugs. You’d make sure their girlfriends gave them a hard time about their drug use. You’d set up social taboos so that the soldiers would feel derelict, even pathetic, if they kept using. You’d remove the contagious drug-using behavior from the environment – no more addicted soldiers around – and replace it with contagious drug-free behavior. And you would provide rich environmental cues – sights, songs, food, clothes, and homes – that remind the former soldiers of their prewar, drug-free identities.
The Milwaukee Theme Park: That’s exactly why Mike Romano became a former addict. When Romano relocated to Milwaukee, his environment changed, and the new environment changed him.
As the Romano story shows, one of the subtle ways in which our environment acts on us is by reinforcing (or deterring) our habits.
When we think about habits, most of the time we’re thinking about the bad ones: biting our fingernails, procrastinating, eating sweets when we’re anxious, and so on. But of course we also have plenty of good habits: jogging, praying, brushing our teeth. Why are habits so important? They are, in essence, behavioral autopilot. They allow lots of good behaviors to happen without the Rider taking charge. Remember that the Rider’s self-control is exhaustible, so it’s a huge plus if some positive things can happen “free” on autopilot.
To change yourself or other people, you’ve got to change habits, and what we see with Romano is that his habits shifted when his environment shifted. This makes sense – our habits are essentially stitched into our environment. Research bears this out. According to one study of people making changes in their lives, 36 percent of the successful changes were associated with a move to a new location, and only 13 percent of unsuccessful changes involved a move.