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April 20, 2023

Does marijuana boost creativity? Make people lazy? Research challenges stereotypes

Several studies in recent years offer new insights into common notions about the effects of weed, and what they mean for health and happiness

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Marijuana Studies Michael Fischer/

A growing body of marijuana research is creating a clearer picture of how it affects people who use cannabis compared to those who don't. Some long-held ideas about pot may be more nuanced than we think.

Beliefs about marijuana are often loaded with opinion, whether the views held are based on personal experience or conventional wisdom about the pros and cons of getting high.

One of the most common claims made about marijuana is that it makes users more creative. Some say it helps them get into a zone while engaged in hobbies or tasks.

But recent research suggests this contention about weed may not be accurate — at least not enough to generalize.

The creative benefits that people experience from getting high may have more to do with how it affects their perceptions and standards of creativity while they are under the influence. The tendency to be creative could also stem from underlying personality traits, like openness, that make people more receptive to experiences like drug use.

And what about another common claim concerning marijuana — that it makes people lazy and saps motivation?

Feeling creative, or being creative? 

A recent study out of the University of Washington's Foster School of Business ran a series of experiments comparing "light" cannabis users, who had just gotten high, with people who were sober — meaning they had not used cannabis during the previous 12 hours.

In the first group of experiments, 107 light users of marijuana were asked to complete a creativity test involving a brick. Those participants were asked to observe the brick and devise as many uses for it as possible in four minutes. Another group of 84 participants in the study were asked to complete the same task while sober.

When they were done, the two groups compared their work. The high group, whose members reported to researchers that they felt more jovial during the experiment, tended to rate its own ideas for the brick as being more creative than the sober group's ideas.

But a third group of people who rated both groups' ideas for based on their novelty and usefulness didn't report any notable difference between the ideas from the high group and the sober group.

In a second experiment, 140 participants were asked to pretend that they had been hired by a consulting firm to come up with ways to boost revenue for a local band.

Like in the first first experiment, the high participants generally found their own ideas as more creative than the ideas proposed by the sober group. The third-party evaluators were still unmoved and found the ideas generated by people under the influence to be no more creative.

"Almost everyone thinks that cannabis makes them more creative. And it seems like that assumption is not supported by the data," Christopher Barnes, an author on the study, told the Washington Post.

Another study out of Washington State University attempted to answer similar questions about weed and creativity several years ago. This study was inspired by the remarks of influential figures who have credited marijuana for some of their accomplishments: Former Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs said pot made him feel "relaxed and creative," and famed musician Louis Armstrong described it as "an assistant — a friend."

In this study, more than 700 undergraduate students were divided into groups of either chronic pot users or non-users. The study sought to figure out whether long-term marijuana use might have an impact on creativity.

Part the study involved testing whether both groups showed particular tendencies or strengths in divergent versus convergent thinking.

Divergent thinking involves considering multiple possible solutions to a problem, while convergent thinking is used to come up with a single, specific solution to a problem. Both are regarded as important indicators of creative ability on a basic level, but past research has offered mixed results about marijuana's effects on these types of thinking.

To add another layer of analysis, this study also used self-reports of creativity and responses to questions about personality traits in order to assess whether the characteristics found in the high and sober groups played a role in how they tackle problems.

The researchers found that the cannabis users tended have openness as a personality trait, which is usually associated with seeking new experiences. This broader exposure can be beneficial to creativity. The study concluded that the personality traits of people who use marijuana are more likely to be an indicator of creativity than their cannabis use, specifically.

Stereotypes about weed — good and bad — limit our ability to weigh benefits and risks

Studies like the ones above have obvious limitations. Creativity in tasks that are more complex than these experiments is much harder to measure and standardize, in part because creativity involves novel ideas. And while the studies attempted to examine the question of subjectivity in evaluating creativity, the act of critical interpretation is a creative skill in its own right.

There are also differences in how creativity might be used in service of a work of art compared to solving a problem. How much of a creative pursuit requires technical skill versus intellectual ability? Does cannabis enhance or detract from these skills? The distinction between art and science in defining the meaning of creativity could also have a bearing on whether cannabis aids it.

One very important facet of creativity is inspiration, which is often powered by the motivation to create in the first place.

This ties into another stereotype about marijuana users — that they're lazy and unmotivated compared to non-users.

On this question, some recent research suggests it's not supported by evidence. 

A study led by researchers at the University of Cambridge and King's College London examined whether cannabis users show higher levels of apathy and anhedonia, the loss of interest in or pleasure from rewards.

For this study, 274 adolescent and adult cannabis users were recruited and compared with non-users of the same age and gender. The cannabis users had all used cannabis at least weekly over the previous three months, with an average of four days per week.

When the groups filled out questionnaires, the researchers found that cannabis users scored slightly better than non-users on prompts about anhedonia, such as, "I would enjoy being with family or close friends." The study also ran experiments using behavioral tasks that involved receiving rewards and rating satisfaction with them.

The cannabis users seemed to be better able to enjoy themselves, but there was no significant difference between the two groups when it came to prompts about apathy.

"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," said Martine Skumlien, one of the researchers on the study. "This is contrary to the stereotypical portrayal we see on TV and in movies."

Skumlien said the study suggests it's the stereotypes about marijuana users that are lazy, not the people who use marijuana.  Determining the ways in which cannabis can be detrimental to physical and mental health is an important part of figuring out how and when it fits into a balanced lifestyle. That involves considering the frequency of use and the different populations who use cannabis. 

But staying beholden to outdated ideas about marijuana will only inhibit valuable research into both its benefits and drawbacks, Skumlien said. 

"Unfair assumptions can be stigmatising and could get in the way of messages around harm reduction," Skumlien said. "We need to be honest and frank about what are and are not the harmful consequences of drug use."

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