Study debunks "stoner" myth that cannabis users are lazy & unmotivated
For almost a century popular culture has been filled with images of lazy, unmotivated "stoners" who do little more with their lives than smoke cannabis, but a new study from a team of UK researchers is busting that long-held myth. Across a series of lab experiments and brain imaging tests the study demonstrated no difference in motivation or reward processing between cannabis users and non-users.
“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,” said Martine Skumlien, a co-author on the new study from the University of Cambridge. “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.”
The new research spanned three key investigations looking to measure apathy (as a metric for motivation) and anhedonia (a decreased ability to feel pleasure) in regular cannabis users compared to non-using controls. The first investigation was a self-reported survey of around 250 volunteers, half of whom were regular cannabis users (imbibing on average four days per week), while the other half were age- and gender-matched non-users.
These first findings revealed no link between cannabis use and either apathy or anhedonia. In fact, cannabis users were found to score marginally lower on anhedonia measurements, suggesting they were more able to experience pleasure compared to non-users.
“We were surprised to see that there was really very little difference between cannabis users and non-users when it came to lack of motivation or lack of enjoyment, even among those who used cannabis every day,” noted Skumlien. “This is contrary to the stereotypical portrayal we see on TV and in movies.”
Around half of the initial cohort was then invited to the lab to complete a number of behavioral experiments. These tests were designed to measure how much effort a person was willing to expend to receive a reward, and how much pleasure they can feel from getting that reward.
Again, the researchers found no difference between the two groups on either task. Cannabis users exerted the same amount of physical effort as non-users, and generated the same amount of pleasure from receiving an award.
Even more interestingly, the researchers divided their cohort into two age-groups: adolescents aged 16 or 17 and older adults in their late 20s. Further dismantling the “stoner” myth, the researchers saw no difference in task results between age-groups, indicating cannabis use does not seem to negatively influence motivation or reward processing in teenagers.
The researchers are much more cautious when pointing out this relatively novel age-related finding. There have been prior studies that have found higher rates of anhedonia in adolescent cannabis users. And there have been links previously established between cannabis use and decreased academic motivation.
Here, the researchers suggest there are potentially a variety of motivational outcomes from adolescent marijuana use that are not picked up by the tests used in this work. So, particularly for younger people, there are still possible long-term detrimental effects from cannabis use.
“Daily use may be associated with greater apathy due to greater duration of intoxication, and could negatively impact educational achievement simply as a result of more time being spent using cannabis rather than on other activities,” the researchers speculate in the new study in regards to negative outcomes for teenagers smoking cannabis.
The final part of this new research, reported in a separate article published in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology, used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate any differences in reward processing between users and non-users. In particular, the focus was on activity in a brain region called the ventral striatum, crucial to feelings of reward anticipation.
While having their brain scanned, the participants played a game designed to spark neural activity in regions associated with reward anticipation and feedback. Yet again, and contrary to the researchers’ initial hypotheses, no differences could be found between cannabis users and non-users.
“Our evidence indicates that cannabis use does not appear to have an effect on motivation for recreational users,” said Barbara Sahakian, another researcher working on the project. “The participants in our study included users who took cannabis on average four days a week and they were no more likely to lack motivation. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that greater use, as seen in some people with cannabis-use disorder, has an effect.”
While the researchers are cautious to note there are a variety of other social and psychological reasons why people that use cannabis may act unmotivated or lazy, the findings do ameliorate one persistent myth – that the very act of smoking marijuana does something to your brain that kills your motivation and turns you into a zombie that only sits on a couch and never gets a job.
Considering how deeply pervasive the stereotype of the "lazy stoner" is in popular culture it’s worth taking a moment to understand the roots of this common perception. The idea of cannabis and laziness goes all the way back to the 1930s, when the 20th century war or drugs was birthed as a way of politically stoking racist divisions.
The myth moved from the "reefer madness" nightmares of cannabis turning you into a zombie to the psychedelic-fueled 1960s, where Richard Nixon explicitly rekindled the "lazy stoner" stereotype as a way of vilifying the counterculture. Denying the expressive creativity of the "hippie" counterculture, the growing use of cannabis among young people was framed as a threat to society, with the drug leading people to quit their jobs, display no interest in work, and serve as a drain on the public welfare system.
In his book Runner’s High, writer Josiah Hesse tracked how the "stoner" stereotype was politically deployed across the 20th century in the United States. Hesse described how Nixon even pushed for a senate subcommittee hearing that tried to frame the idea of a "lazy stoner" within scientific terms.
“The hearing leaned heavily on the condition of 'amotivational syndrome,' which was said to be a state of stupeﬁed, zombielike behavior on the part of marijuana users, which explained the 'drop-out' mentality of hippies and poor people on welfare,” wrote Hesse.
Over the last decade, as a wave of cannabis legalization started to spread across the United States, the classic "dude where’s my car" stoner stereotype started to dissipate. But in other parts of the world it still persists. A widely lambasted government-funded campaign in Australia from 2015, for example, depicted cannabis users as “stoner sloths,” disinterested in engaging with anyone or anything.
Skumlien said the problem with these kinds of depictions are that they are so absurd they detract from important messaging about actual potential harms from cannabis use. Like any drug, cannabis is not harmless, but according to Skumlien we need to be open and honest about exactly what the problems are instead of perpetuating unrealistic caricatures.
“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.”
The new study was published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.
Source: University of Cambridge