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Cannabis’ Effect on Motivation Isn’t Straightforward

Since the 1970s, researchers have been investigating motivation in relation to cannabis use. Interestingly, while the stereotype about the unmotivated stoner persists to this day, most research finds little basis for this societal assumption. 


A new study seems to confirm further that cannabis consumers are just as motivated as non-users. But, as with many areas of cannabis research, its effects on motivation are not straightforward. Changes to motivation may also indicate mental health issues, medical conditions, and substance use disorders. 


A Lack of Evidence for the Lazy Stoner Stereotype


In July 2021, the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society published the results of a longitudinal analysis on cannabis use as it related to motivation in more than 400 adolescents aged 14 to 17. 


The participants completed five biannual assessments with two self-reported questionnaires. The Apathy Evaluation Scale included statements like, “Getting things done on my own is important to me,” “I don’t follow through on my plans,” and “I approach life with intensity.” The second report, which used the Motivation and Engagement Scale, explored the tendencies of each participant with regard to disengagement, persistence, planning, self-efficacy, and valuing school.


What the researchers found after crunching the data was that participants generally increased cannabis use over time. Initially, this study found a correlation between baseline cannabis use and apathy and lack of interest in school as well as disengagement. But, after controlling for several factors such as sex, depression, and nicotine consumption, this association disappeared.


In the end, the authors concluded, “Our results do not support a prospective link between cannabis use and reduced motivation among adolescents, save for a lingering connection between cannabis use and a lower value in school.”


Earlier Studies Paint a Similar Picture About Cannabis and Motivation


Older studies have also struggled to find a direct link between cannabis consumption and dwindling motivation. Instead, research has found confounding variables that affect lower motivation, such as medical conditions (including depression), alcohol consumption, and personality. 


For example, in 2006, researchers compared motivation between non-users with that of chronic consumers (seven days a week). Between these two starkly different groups, they “found no differences in motivation but a small difference in subjective well-being.” 


Based on their findings, they concluded that “daily use of cannabis does not impair motivation” and that it was primarily the medical cannabis consumers who reported lower well-being. Which would suggest it was a medical condition and not the plant that led to these differences.


Another study, from 2020, consisted of an extensive survey with 1,100 respondents. This comprehensive survey covered frequency of use, the amount used, details on problematic use, and more. It also collected information on each participant’s self-efficacy, apathy, goal orientation, and reward sensitivity.


Like the most recent study, the authors behind this survey concluded a small but measurable connection between cannabis use and motivation. However, they also reported that much of this correlation seemed to be related to differences in depression, substance use, and personality. Again, it was not directly tied to cannabis consumption.


Together, these studies paint a more complicated picture that won’t be easy to solve. At the least, these revelations warrant further investigation, especially considering the complicated relationship between cannabis and depression as well as cannabis and substance use disorders. 


For example, does cannabis use lead to depression, which in turn decreases motivation? Or are people who have depression and are, therefore, less motivated, more likely to turn to cannabis for relief? 


Current Limitations of the Research

To date, most studies exploring how cannabis affects productivity and motivation rely on surveys and self-reporting. While these methods are extremely valuable for collecting real-life use and experiences, it’s still less than ideal to reach truly controlled experiments.


One of the only studies done within a well-controlled setting was published in 1974. Performed within a high-security hospital, researchers worked with six male volunteers in a token economy experiment over 42 days. 


The study found that as the volunteers consumed more cannabis, they spent more time resting or on entertainment, with less time spent working. Although the “introduction of cannabis resulted in lower productivity [and] reduction of intake raised productivity,” the researchers also found that “no evidence of physiological damage was yielded by clinical medical examinations.”


This study, performed nearly 50 years ago, may have been well controlled, but it is still quite limited due to its age and the extremely small pool of volunteers. It would be interesting to see if today’s higher potency cannabis, the many new methods of consumption, or the gender of participants would change these findings.


Motivation Influenced by Other Factors, Not Strictly Cannabis Consumption


Slowly, the scientific literature has confirmed that cannabis consumption isn’t as directly correlated to a lack of motivation. These studies suggest stronger links with medical conditions, mental health, and substance use rather than with consumption of the plant. 


So, while it may be time to put the old stoner stereotype to bed, it will be increasingly important to better understand these nuanced relationships. 

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