U of T study challenges lazy stoner stereotypes

Published on May 3, 2024 by Special to the oz.

U of T Professor Michael Inzlicht is shown. Photo: Lorne Bridgeman
Professor Michael Inzlicht runs the Work and Play Lab at U of T Scarborough.

In a study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, U of T researchers found that regular cannabis use had minimal effects on motivation and willpower, and that getting high was associated with more positive emotions and fewer negative ones.

The research aimed to take an objective look at the effects of recreational cannabis on the daily lives of chronic users, says Michael Inzlicht, a professor in the department of psychology at U of T Scarborough who led the study.

“There is a stereotype that chronic cannabis users are somehow lazy or unproductive,” says Inzlicht, who is cross-appointed to the Rotman School of Management. “We found that’s not the case – their behaviours might change a bit in the moment while they’re high, but our evidence shows they are not lazy or lacking motivation at all.”

For the study, scientists surveyed 260 chronic cannabis users – defined as those who used cannabis at least three times a week – five times per day over the course of a week. Participants received notifications through an app asking if they were high, and were then prompted to answer questionnaires that assessed their emotional state, motivation levels, willpower and self-regulation.

Inzlicht says the most interesting finding relates to motivation, with participants found to be just as willing and motivated to exert effort in completing a task when high compared to when sober.

Past research has shown mixed results when it comes to chronic cannabis use and motivation, with Inzlicht noting much of it relied on limited experimental designs that didn’t account for differences between cannabis users and non-users, including variations in personality, mental health or use of other psychoactive substances.

He says this study accounted for those pre-existing differences and also looked at chronic cannabis use while participants were actively high.

The researchers did find that being high was associated with lower levels of self-regulation, an important trait for being able to accomplish tasks. Specifically, chronic users reported being more impulsive, less thoughtful and less orderly.

“These things can detract someone from getting stuff done, but we didn’t find it made them less hard-working, responsible or able to focus,” says Inzlicht, who runs the Work and Play Lab, which does research on self-control, motivation and empathy as well as social media, digital devices and recreational cannabis use.

Chronic cannabis users were also found to experience a boost in positive emotions such as awe and gratitude when they were high, and a reduction in some negative emotions such as fear and anxiety. However, more chronic users were found to experience more negative emotions while high as well as while sober.

The study also found no evidence of a “weed hangover” the day after cannabis use.

Inzlicht notes that studying the effects of daily cannabis use was difficult in the past due to its legal status, and that most scholarship on the topic focused on negative impacts in an effort to curb use.

Now that cannabis is legal in Canada, however, Inzlicht says he expects there will be more research focusing on both positive effects and risks.

“The cannabis literature, historically, tended to focus a lot on the negative medical consequences of chronic use,” says Inzlicht. “Part of the motivation for this study is to take a neutral, clear-eyed approach to see how cannabis affects chronic users in their everyday lives.”

He adds the study isn’t an endorsement of heavy cannabis use, pointing out there is plenty of research highlighting its risks – especially among adolescents.

Rather, he points to Statistics Canada data showing that nearly one in 10 adult Canadians are regular cannabis users, and they come from all walks of life. Cannabis is also the fourth most used recreational drug after caffeine, alcohol and tobacco. But despite its increased legal and social acceptance, relatively little is known about the everyday experiences of regular users.

“Our data suggests that you can be hard-working, motivated and a chronic cannabis user at the same time.”

The study received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

— Don Campbell