No Scientific Basis for the ‘Lazy Stoner’ Stereotype, Researchers Say

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Cannabis users are no less motivated or unable to enjoy life’s pleasures than non-users, according to a new study. Juno/Stocksy
  • People who use cannabis are often stereotyped as “lazy” or “unmotivated.”
  • New research from the University of Cambridge shows that cannabis users are no less likely to be unmotivated or unable to enjoy life’s pleasures compared to non-users.
  • Still, research on motivation levels among cannabis users is mixed and experts say that more long-term studies are still needed.

Cannabis users are often depicted as lazy and unmotivated in the movies and on television, content to sit on the couch getting high and snacking on junk food.

But a new study from researchers in the United Kingdom challenges this “lazy stoner” stereotype.

Researchers found that adults and adolescents who used cannabis several times a week were no less motivated, or unable to enjoy life’s pleasures, compared to people who didn’t use cannabis regularly.

In addition, compared to non-users, cannabis users were just as willing to expend effort to gain a reward, and they showed similar levels of wanting or liking rewards.

“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,” study author Martine Skumlien, a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, said in a news release.

The results were recently published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology.

For the study, researchers recruited 274 adolescents and adults. About half had used cannabis at least once a week during the past three months, with an average of 4 days per week.

Researchers matched these people to non-cannabis users of the same age and gender. Non-users had used cannabis or tobacco at least once, but had used cannabis fewer than 10 times during their lifetime and not at all during the past month.

Participants completed a questionnaire that measured their inability to feel pleasure, known as anhedonia. This asked them to rate statements such as, “I would enjoy being with family or close friends.”

They also completed another questionnaire that measured their lack of interest or concern, or apathy. This included items such as how likely they were complete a job or how interested they were in learning new things.

Cannabis users scored slightly lower on the anhedonia questionnaire, compared to non-users. This suggests that people who use cannabis several times a week may have an easier time enjoying themselves — or that people who tend to enjoy themselves are more likely to use cannabis.

However, the researchers point out that the difference in anhedonia scores between the two groups was small, so it may not be “clinically relevant.”

On the apathy questionnaire, there was no significant difference between cannabis users and non-users. Similarly, the researchers did not find a link between the frequency of cannabis use and the level of anhedonia or apathy.

In addition, there was no difference on a test of willingness to expend effort to gain a reward, or on a test measuring how much a person wanted and liked several kinds of rewards.

The researchers also found that adolescents — cannabis users and non-users — scored higher than adults on the questionnaires for both anhedonia and apathy. However, the use of cannabis by adolescents did not make this difference larger.

“[This] suggests that adolescents are no more vulnerable than adults to the harmful effects of cannabis on motivation, the experience of pleasure or the brain’s response to reward,” study author Will Lawn, PhD, a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at King’s College London in the United Kingdom, said in the release.

In 2019, over one-third of U.S. high school students reported ever using cannabis, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC). Over one-fifth reported using cannabis within the past 30 days.

Prior research on the link between cannabis use and motivation has been mixed.

One older study from 2005 found lower levels of motivation among adolescent cannabis users compared to a control group of adolescents with little drug use history. By contrast, a recent study from 2019, which compared regular and light cannabis users, showed no link between regular cannabis use and lower motivation.

Research also varies in terms of who rates the motivation level of a cannabis user. In the current study, participants rated their own motivation using the apathy questionnaire.

Another study from 2018 asked people who knew a cannabis user well to assess how motivated they were. More frequent cannabis users were more likely to be rated as unmotivated, compared to infrequent users or non-users.

This could be due to cannabis users actually being unmotivated, or the “lazy stoner” stereotype affecting how people view those who use cannabis.

This depiction of cannabis users is well-embedded in our cultural psyche, with many recent movie and television portrayals. But some suggest this may have originated as far back as the counterculture movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

One of the strengths of the new study is that researchers included a relatively large number of participants, and matched cannabis users to non-users of the same age and gender. They also used several measures of reward and motivation that might be impacted by cannabis use.

However, additional research is needed to fully understand the impact that cannabis use may have on motivation, such as studies focused on people who use cannabis daily or almost daily — including high functioning cannabis users who may have a cannabis use disorder.

In addition, the lingering effects of cannabis use on motivation may also differ from what happens shortly after use.

“It is important to distinguish between the acute versus residual effects of cannabis use on motivated behavior,” said Anita Cservenka, PhD, an associate professor in the School of Psychological Science at Oregon State University.

For instance, a 2016 study has found that cannabis can affect motivation shortly after use. People who had recently used cannabis were less likely to choose high-effort tasks on a rewards test compared to non-users.

Cservenka agreed that longer-term studies are still needed, including those that look at the effect of products containing high amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the main psychoactive compound in cannabis.

According to new research, cannabis users may possess the same levels of motivation and enjoyment as non-users, but it’s possible the long-held “lazy stoner” stereotype may also impact the results of cannabis studies.

For example, the authors of the new study said in the paper that participants’ awareness of the way others see them could prompt cannabis users to try to “appear more motivated” when taking part in a psychological study.

More rigorous, long-term research is still needed to confirm the researchers’ theory that people who use cannabis may be no less motivated than those who do not. This might involve measuring people’s motivation and apathy before they start using cannabis to see if that changes with cannabis use.

“[This will] help determine how preexisting individual differences in motivation are related to cannabis use and whether the initiation of frequent cannabis use changes this behavior,” Cservenka said.

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