In a recent study titled “Cannabis Consumption and Prosociality” that was published in the journal Scientific Report, researchers discovered that people who have recently used cannabis scored higher on standardized measurements of prosocial behaviors, empathy and moral decision-making compared to non-users. We sat down with lead investigator Assistant Professor Jacob Miguel Vigil of the University of New Mexico Department of Psychology to discuss whether cannabis holds the key to niceness.
The Paper: Your latest study seems unique. There doesn’t appear to be much research regarding how cannabis affects personality. Can you explain what you learned?
Vigil: That’s why this research is really important to me, because I wanted to demonstrate something that I have observed a lot in my life—this kind of transformation in perspectives. It’s usually been approached by people that view cannabis use as problematic behavior—from addiction researchers and so forth. They see cannabis users as unmotivated, or they see them as addicted, or perhaps believe that they are losing sight of their goals. It’s never really been approached objectively to see what’s going on before making negative interpretations.
The study was a really simple design. We compared young college students who had recently used cannabis by their own reports and verified through urine tests against healthy young college students that didn’t have any THC in their systems. Through a battery of psychological tests, we found a general pattern of what I like to call the “humanitarianism effect,” which is a paradigm shift in perspectives from one’s own ego towards a more basic or primal responsibility toward other human beings in a collective way.
We found that folks that had recently used cannabis showed higher levels of pro-social behaviors, and higher measurements of empathy—the empathy quotient was statistically significant across two groups—as well as what researchers refer to as “moral foundations.” These are basically the types of ideals that we think about when we justify what is right and what is wrong.
There’s different dimensions of moral foundations, and the cannabis users scored higher on the dimension of harmlessness—being benign and protective of vulnerable individuals—as well as higher in the dimension of fairness—wanting for there to be quality across individuals. Males curiously also scored higher on a personality dimension of agreeableness compared to non-users.
The other thing that’s interesting is that across these two groups, there was also a correlation with the recency in which people had used cannabis—how many days had passed since they last used. There was a linear correlation there, which suggests that there is somewhat of a transient effect. It’s not constant and it could be modified—it could be enhanced or it could be waned with the absence of cannabis exposure.
It’s just a different interpretation of what some might otherwise observe as apathy towards certain types of extrinsic goals. I just see it as this shift where people are really thinking in a more spiritual way about being human beings with a collective past, and the responsibility to take care of other people that comes with that.
I’ve just noticed it, because these are the kinds of people that I hang around with, and that I enjoy being around. They tend to be more visionary than those folks that perhaps think more linearly and focus on extrinsic goal pursuit—usually the pursuit of money.
What I’ve observed personally is that people that use cannabis tend to be less focused on money. This is actually shown through formal research. Cannabis users’ brains are less likely to light up when they are shown a depiction of dollar sign compared to non-users. People that don’t use cannabis get more excited when they see a dollar sign, and that has been interpreted by addiction researchers as a negative thing. “These cannabis users aren’t even excited about gold. They don’t care about anything!” Well, no, maybe they just don’t care about money.
What my research is suggesting that they care about human beings in a benign way that, presumably, is a tremendous benefit to society.
You’re mentioning terms like “agreeableness” and “moral decision-making.” These are technical metrics?
Yes. These are concepts that have been operationalized through the replication of surveys and convergent evidence. These are formal psychological concepts that are taken very seriously by psychologists. They’re meaningful in our understanding of developmental processes and what the normative human existence is. And likewise, they’re meaningful in understanding what might be aberrations or pathologies. In terms of social psychology, we tend to use these terms to describe basic perceptions about the world and perceptions about other people.
You found no difference between users and non-users in measurements of anger, hostility, trust of others and facial threat interpretation. Did cannabis have any affect on negative emotions?
I need to test the opposite concepts as well, because the literature is mixed. Some literature said that cannabis use is correlated with domestic violence. But that depends on the sample. And then there’s other studies—even among animals—that suggest that cannabis is associated with altruistic behaviors or appeasement behaviors or just being nice. grooming other little rats or whatever. I think the null findings regarding differences in threat interpretations and hostility suggest that cannabis users are not necessarily more trusting of other people. It seems as though they do have a sense of responsibility for other people, though, which is kind of nuanced.
I think that these findings are exciting, because they may just demonstrate an effect of cannabis use that could prove to be even more important than all the disease remedying mechanisms that may even be discovered in the future.