The lazy stoner stereotype has long been the go-to depiction of people who use cannabis in mainstream media and a pillar of anti-drug campaigns worldwide. But a new study suggests that the representation of people who use weed as lazy and unmotivated might be lazy in itself.
The study, led by scientists at the University of Cambridge, University College London, and King’s College London, and published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology last month, examined whether people who use cannabis show higher levels of apathy (loss of motivation) and anhedonia (loss of interest in or pleasure from rewards) compared to people who don’t use cannabis, and whether they were less willing to exert physical effort to receive a reward.
“We’re so used to seeing ‘lazy stoners’ on our screens that we don’t stop to ask whether they’re an accurate representation of cannabis users. Our work implies that this is in itself a lazy stereotype, and that people who use cannabis are no more likely to lack motivation or be lazier than people who don’t,” Martine Skumlien, one of the authors of the study, said.
Cannabis may of course be associated with other psychophysical effects, depending on things like the strain of the plant as well as the unique characteristics of the person using it. But a better understanding of what cannabis does and does not do can lead to a better understanding of the people who use it, and better ways to talk about the plant in general.
The study involved 274 adolescents and adults who had used cannabis at least once weekly and with an average of four days a week over the past three months, and a group of people who did not use cannabis, matched for age and gender. In order to measure apathy and anhedonia, participants ranked statements like how much they enjoy being with family and friends, how interested they are in learning new things, and how likely they are to see a job through to the end.
Researchers found that people who used cannabis did not report greater apathy or anhedonia compared to people who did not use cannabis.
In fact, the people who used cannabis scored slightly lower on anhedonia than those who did not, suggesting the former are better able to enjoy themselves in the mentioned activities than the latter. According to the authors of the study, this may be because people who tend to seek out pleasure are also more likely to use cannabis. But the authors also warned that the difference they found was small and should be interpreted with caution.
Adolescents, whether they used weed or not, reported greater apathy and anhedonia than adults. This suggests that adolescents are no more vulnerable to the perceived negative effects of cannabis than adults are.
The researchers also found no link between frequency of cannabis use and either apathy or anhedonia.
“Our evidence indicates that cannabis use does not appear to have an effect on motivation for recreational users. The participants in our study included users who took cannabis daily and they were no more likely to lack motivation,” said Barbara Sahakian, another author of the study.
However, Sahakian also noted that their study could not rule out the possibility that more use of cannabis, like in people with cannabis use disorder, could affect motivation.
The researchers also assessed the relationship between cannabis use and willingness to expend effort for or desire a reward.
Just over half of the participants performed a number of behavioral tasks. The first measured willingness to expend effort for a reward. Participants were given the option to press buttons in order to win points that they could later exchange for sweets to take home. There were three difficulty levels and three reward levels, and points were given to participants who accepted and completed the tasks. The higher the points, the more willing a participant was to exert effort to get a reward.
The second task measured how much pleasure participants derived from rewards. Participants were first asked to estimate how much they wanted to receive each of three rewards (30 seconds of one of their favorite songs, one piece of chocolate or a sweet, and a £1 coin, equivalent to about $1.16) on a scale of “do not want at all” to “intensely want.” They then received the rewards and were asked to rate how pleasurable they found them on a scale of “do not like at all” to “intensely like.”
The researchers found no significant difference between people who used cannabis and those who didn’t, or between age groups, on either task. This suggests that people who use cannabis are just as willing to expend effort to get rewards as well as just as likely to want and enjoy rewards as people who do not use cannabis.
It should be noted that the participants were sober during the study and it’s possible that motivation wanes when people are high on cannabis. It’s also possible that the participants who used cannabis may have wanted to appear more motivated in the study in order to disprove the lazy stoner stereotype.
Earlier this year, the same team of researchers published a study that used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show that people who used cannabis had similar reward system responses as people who did not use cannabis.
“Unfair assumptions can be stigmatizing and could get in the way of messages around harm reduction,” said Skumlien. “We need to be honest and frank about what are and are not the harmful consequences of drug use.”
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