Albert Einstein was wrong when he said to repeat the same mistake over and over again is insanity. It is quite normal human behaviour. But we are able to overcome it.
In an experiment, scientists placed hungry pigeons in a chamber where a feeder automatically released food every 15 minutes. At first, the pigeons were stationary and waited for the food. After some time passed, each pigeon developed a distinctive ritual while waiting for the food. Some walked in circles, some engaged in head thrusting, and others bobbed their heads. Though the pigeons had already learned that the food was released automatically every 15 minutes, they still developed rituals while they were waiting, as if the ritual caused the food release. Once the rituals were reinforced by the release of the food, they were simply strengthened in the minds of the pigeons.
This experiment shows that evolution encoded in the minds of living creatures the innate desire for control over causation – that is, to find a cause for what is happening to them, even if the cause they find is false. This is the same with humans too. We are “causal-seeking animals“, hate pure coincidences and complex, unknown reasons. We create a world of “arbitrary coherence“, where our initial impressions and perceptions about reality will shape our future behaviour, which often includes irrational rituals. You walked on the right side of the street yesterday morning and you had a great day? The next day you will tend to walk on the right side too, even if there is no causal relationship between your walking patterns and the quality of your day. Our minds can be amazingly resistant to the evidence that our reactions are useless or wrong.
In the end, these rituals produce even more new layers of irrational patterns of behaviour. We can explain many strange features of human behaviour with this knowledge, including our collective behaviour. Our societies often generate patterns of complex, institutionalised rituals detached from reality, including religious rituals, homeopathy, or the war on drugs. But while the rituals performed by pigeons, although not beneficial, do not result in harm, these societal rituals often produce devastating consequences for the communities they intend to serve.
Although governments have already learnt that criminalising drug users and spending more money on law enforcement measures to repress illicit drug trafficking is not resulting in fewer people using drugs, they keep repeating the same tough-on-crime rituals over and over again. Whenever the society faces any new risks related to drug use, the natural reaction of most political leaders is to call for more repression, and more criminalisation. The state performs the rituals of police raids, introducing new sanctions, banning new substances, and incarcerating more people. These rituals are no more effective at reducing drug use than the head-bobbing of pigeons. Most of the time they simply don’t work at all. Sometimes they seem to work because the reduction of crime correlates with the introduction of tough-on-crime measures, as happened with the zero tolerance policing in New York in the 90s. But researchers who point out that larger cultural and demographic trends are responsible for these reductions are ignored by policy makers.
The famous quote from Albert Einstein that the definition of insanity is to doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results, does not take into consideration that this behaviour is quite normal. It is driven by evolution: our hunting and hunted ancestors needed these rituals to make sense of a hostile and stressful world. They needed to make fast decisions for survival without researching the evidence or exploring the true explanations for natural phenomena.
The good news is that evolution also equipped us with a highly advanced brain that enables us to learn from our mistakes and overcome the basic instincts that can be useful for survival, but can equally destroy us. This ability is key for the survival of the human race when facing global challenges such as war, poverty, and climate change driven by natural but destructive social rituals. The war on drugs is one such institutionalised and self-destroying ritual we must overcome through collective learning and action.