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Pot Matters: Cannabis and Motivation



A new study in the journal Psychopharmacology has some interesting results regarding concerns that marijuana use causes apathy, otherwise known as amotivational syndrome.

This was a big deal in the 1970s and early 1980s, back in the “Just Say No” days of anti-pot propaganda. The slur against marijuana was that it produced teenage slacker behavior, it made teens lose interest in meaningful and productive activities (like doing well in school).

An admittedly small-scale study has produce fascinating findings on this subject, and they are well-summarized in a recent article in Medical News Today. It’s a small study, comparing two groups. One had 17 members, the other 20. The study compares the ability (or interest) of subjects to push the space bar on a keyboard over and over again. Cool, right? Seriously, that’s the task.

Here’s the catch, the more times they pushed the bar the more money they made—small amounts of money, but money. Cold hard cash, as they say. The money is what is called an incentive, and because the task involves an incentive, it’s also considered motivation. Therefore, this (the scientists reasoned) is a good way to study motivation.

Get some people, see how many times they will push the space bar to earn money while they are not stoned, and then compare this to how many times they will push the space bar when they are stoned. Brilliant!

Excuse the sarcasm, that will be explained shortly. Actually, this is a good study as it produces some valuable information. The key finding here is that while marijuana may influence motivation while people are under the influence, there is no carryover effect to when they are not.

Thus, even though it is a small-scale study, “these results support a transient amotivational syndrome caused by acute cannabis administration but do not support a chronic amotivational syndrome associated with cannabis dependence.” That’s good news.

In other news, they tried using cannabis with and without cannabidiol (CBD). Apparently, the impact on motivation is greater without CBD. That is, the effect is mediated (and lowered) by CBD. That’s interesting, and good to know.

Overall, the scientists realize this was a small sample that they were working with and that more work needs to be done to check these results in a larger population. It is a well-done study producing solid data.

But, really? (Here where the sarcasm is explained.)

No offense intended to our distant evolutionary cousins and fellow primates, but is it really a test of motivation that when people get stoned, they lose interest in being trained monkeys directed at a stupid and boring task like tapping a space bar as many times as they can in a few minute’s time? Is getting a few bucks really worth it? Isn’t there a problem here when it comes to incentives and a truly honest and/or accurate assessment of the costs and benefits of performing the task while under the influence of marijuana?

Okay, people did the task and did it well when they were not under the influence of marijuana. That’s a reasonable baseline. Think about it. They were recruited for the experiment, they made a commitment to cooperate in good faith, and it’s really not that demanding a task to complete.

But now consider the effects of marijuana, and for that matter, why a lot of people use it. It makes the mind wander, it introduces a different perceptual look at one’s environment, and it makes people, some people, a bit more self-conscious. Yes, you can imagine the thoughts of a stoned research subject: “I’ll push the space bar… but what an interesting sound it creates… and if I slow it down, it creates an interesting rhythm… I like that beat… and that researcher over there has a really interesting way of staring at us.”

The problem here is what in research is referred to as a tautology.

Something is because it is something. It’s like saying marijuana use is drug abuse, and then observing people using marijuana and calling it drug abuse. Nothing has been proven, something has merely been defined.

This experiment is a little different, but marijuana has certain effects. Those effects were observed in this experiment. That’s not proof about motivation, that’s just proof that marijuana has certain effects. In this experiment, the benefits of being stoned, the perceptual benefits, were held to be greater for the test subjects than the cash benefits awarded for acting like trained monkeys and tapping the space bar as many times as they could.

Could the stoned subjects press the space bar more times than they did if the benefits were greater? Perhaps the experiment should be redesigned to find this out as well.

Last week’s Pot Matters: The Happening We Need to Happen