Researchers from the Medical Cannabis Research Fund at the University of New Mexico recently published a new study titled “Cannabis consumption and prosociality.” The study found that undergraduates at UNM who had levels of THC in their system, when compared to nonusers, showed more empathy, pro-social behaviors and moral decision making.
The data shows the statistical magnitude in the differences between the two mean values of the results of the two respective groups.THC users all scored higher than nonusers in measures of prosocial relations, empathy, a moral foundation of harmlessness and a moral foundation of fairness; THC users did score lower in measures of in-group loyalty, though.
Jacob Vigil, UNM psychology professor and lead psychologist on the study, said that he was motivated to study this topic because of a lecture he heard from the National Institute of Health that said cannabis users were less motivated by money. This made Vigil wonder if there were any factors at play aside from the stereotypes of laziness typically assigned to cannabis users.
“It seemed as though cannabis tends to result in a psychological shift from externally pressured goals ... And to me, my observation is that cannabis tends to result from that kind of egocentric or perhaps, externally pressurized trajectory towards one that is more primal and one that is more concerned with humanity in a broader collective context,” Vigil said.
The research was conducted on 146 healthy young adults ages 18-25 through a battery of psychological assessments and questionnaires. The research started September 2019 but had to be cut short in January 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the data collected was so statistically significant that it still was sound enough to be published.
“But as psychologists, our task is to basically understand thoughts and behaviors. So we measure concepts like (lack of) ego and our motivations to help other people, or what we might be otherwise inclined to think about in terms of how we navigate the world and so forth,” Vigil said.
The pro-social benefits found in their study were more pronounced in participants who used THC more recently, pointing to a true causal relationship between cannabis use and pro-social behaviors, according to Sarah Stith, UNM economics professor and researcher on the study.
“Positive benefits seem to really be correlated with the recency of cannabis use, which makes it hard to say that people are just consuming cannabis when they're feeling pro-social,” Stith said.
The results of this study could impact what drugs people are using to treat their medical issues. Compared to opioids, which can cause negative changes in emotions and antisocial behaviors, cannabis tends to increase one’s sociability and can be used to treat similar ailments as opioids.
“The relationship turns from one of the individual with other human beings to one of the individual with that opiate that their addiction to that opiate and cannabis, even though it is addicting. Obviously, most people that use cannabis tend to do it again, because they'd like the effects. It also tends to promote sociality,” Vigil said.
Stith hopes that this study encourages more research to be done in the area with different groups of people, but acknowledged the results of this study still defy a lot of preconceived notions of the effects of cannabis.
“(With cannabis use) you typically would expect there to be negative externalities. You know, maybe there's some negative behavioral changes or secondhand smoke or things like that, but in this case it's suggesting, actually, that people might get along better if they were consuming cannabis, which is pretty extreme,” Stith said.
Still, Stith hopes this research could open up other areas of study surrounding cannabis use and its social impacts.
“I think that the biggest impact I hope to see is that other researchers, and ourselves as well, will continue to research into this area and explore it with greater depth and bigger data sets,” Stith said.
The ultimate goal of the research is to continue to provide their community with information to allow individuals to make the decision that is best for them, according to Vigil.
“There's so much for us to learn, but ultimately, it comes down to the individual's decision, and that is my goal as a scientist … to provide my family and my
community more options for navigating their own health,” Vigil said.
Madeline Pukite the managing editor at the Daily Lobo. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @maddogpukite