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Tribute to Alan Marlatt

Alan Marlatt is a beacon for scientific psychological research

One of our great addiction scientists - one of the great addiction scientists of all time - Alan Marlatt - has died.

Deaths of friends and colleagues always make us think of our own mortality. And my career has intersected with Alan's over five decades.

Alan first achieved wide attention with his "think-drink" work - showing that how people think about alcohol has at least as much effect on their behavior when drinking as the substance itself. Alan demonstrated that this was true even with alcoholics, who were more prone to overdrink in an experiment when they thought they were consuming booze than when they actually were (as described in the "Think-Drink Effect" in the December 1981 issue of Psychology Today).

Of course, if you realize that how people think about alcohol has a major impact on alcoholics' behavior, you're not inclined towards the disease notion that alcoholism and addiction are strictly matters of body chemistry. In this regard Alan and I were on the same page - and this anti-disease perspective informed his work throughout his career.

This shared perspective got us both embroiled in the great controlled-drinking controversy of the early 1980s, set off by the witch hunters who attacked Mark and Linda Sobell's controlled-drinking research. Alan was one of the few researchers who defended the Sobells - which (a) wasn't an easy thing for a government-funded researcher to do (this was well before the NIAAA decided "Alcoholism isn't what it used to be," in 2009) (b) demonstrated the integrity that Alan displayed throughout his career.

Alan had already begun investigating relapse prevention. Since he had shown that relapses resulted from an interaction between the way one thought about alcohol and the effects of the drug, Alan was the first to study the processes that caused, and to develop treatment tools to prevent, relapse. Alan showed his intellectual boldness, along with his scientific care, in this as in every topic he tackled.

Alan and I first spoke before the CD wars and his work on relapse prevention, when he graciously told me that Love and Addiction had influenced him to broaden his research beyond alcohol to include other addictive behaviors. This was typical of Alan's generosity of spirit with so many in the field - students and colleagues alike.

Alan applied his non-black-and-white, non-abstinence-only approach to college heavy drinkers. This became one of his main professional engagements, one that has produced a generation of secondary prevention collegiate programs that identify and intervene with high-risk young drinkers.

It was also an example of harm reduction - which became a major thrust for Alan from the 1990s onward. Harm reduction derived from clean-needle and methadone-maintenance programs for heroin addicts. But Alan saw its broader application to alcohol problems as well. Recently, in 2009, Alan displayed both his commitment to empiricism and his boldness in tackling controversial policy questions when his research team demonstrated that "wet" housing for alcoholics (a residence where they can drink freely) both saved a significant amount of money and actually reduced alcoholics' drinking levels.

The last time I saw Alan was at the 2010 Drug Policy Alliance conference in Albuquerque where he responded to Ethan Nadelmann's call to speak, even though he had to pay his own way. Alan was always ready to advance a good cause - in this case to develop more sensible and helpful policies towards drugs - despite the fact that harm reduction has not been a calling-card for obtaining government funding. He spread light and understanding in New Mexico as he always did.

More recently, Alan and I were in touch over his new book - Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention for Addictive Behaviors (with Sarah Bowen and Neha Chawla) - published this year by Guilford. Once again, in this area as in so many others concerning addictive behavior, Alan was at the forefront with empirically-based, innovative clinical techniques that displayed both his humanity and his genius. Together, these gifts made him a beacon for scientific psychological research for all time.

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