Led by researchers for The University of New Mexico, the study was published in the journal Scientific Reports. It is one of the first to demonstrate the non-medical benefits of cannabis use and positive psychological outcomes among healthy young adults.
Researchers point to the existing literature surrounding cannabis and user effects, noting that the majority focus on the health risks and pharmacodynamics of consumption, rather than investigating other normative psychological effects of use among otherwise healthy people.
“Most investigations on the effects of using cannabis have focused on either negative consequences of cannabis addiction or on the physical health effects of cannabis use,” said Jacob Miguel Vigil, lead investigator and assistant professor at UNM Department of Psychology. “Almost no formal scientific attention has been devoted to understanding other psychological and behavioral effects of consuming the plant, despite it being so widely used throughout human history.”
With controls for the participant’s age, sex, ethnicity, and childhood socioeconomic status, researchers examined 146 healthy college students between 18 and 25 years of age with varying, detectable levels of THC in their urine.
Ultimately, they found that cannabis consumers scored higher than THC-free participants on measures of prosocial behavior, empathy, moral harmlessness, and moral fairness. Cannabis users and non-users had no differences in measurements of anger, hostility, trust of others, facial threat interpretation, extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, openness, or moral decision making founded on principles of respecting authority and preserving the concept of purity.
The findings also suggest that cannabis could contribute to a shift from more ego-centric self-concepts to a heightened sense of selflessness and responsibility to protect others from unneeded harm. Among men, cannabis users scored higher on “agreeableness,” and most of the observed differences in prosociality between cannabis users and non-users had a correlation with the duration of time since participants last used cannabis.
This suggests that the effects of cannabis in this regard are transient; essentially, if you stop consuming cannabis, that extra boost of kindness could vanish.
“The transience of the effects supports that cannabis is triggering behavioral and perceptual changes rather than that cannabis users and non-user differ fundamentally in their baseline approaches to social interactions,” said co-author and Associate Professor Sarah Stith, UNM Department of Economics.
Co-author Tiphanie Chanel called the research “groundbreaking,” adding, “I hope that this work can help pave the road to more fully explore the effects of cannabis on human interactions and wellbeing.”
Studies show that people develop their personalities during adolescence and young adulthood, when prosocial behaviors and habits are formed. Researchers said that there is a need for further basic, psychological research in these age groups, especially among cannabis users outside of the study sample.
The cross-sectional model of the study didn’t enable researchers to track participants over time, particularly pre- and post-cannabis use. When discussing limitations, researchers also noted that the sample in this study was fairly small and may not be representative of the larger community, effectively limiting the generalizability of the findings. While the sample pulled from a university with a larger proportion of non-traditional students, and more ethnic and racial diversity, they note the lack of non-college students is still limiting.
Where there is still more to explore, Vigil refers to cannabis as a “super medication,” not only effective for treating an array of health conditions but now displaying potential to improve a person’s psychological health.
Vigil added, “Prosociality is essential to society’s overall cohesiveness and vitality, and therefore, cannabis’ effects on our interpersonal interactions may eventually prove to be even more important to societal wellbeing than its medicinal effects.”
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