College Students Who Smoke Weed Are More Motivated Than Those Who Don't, Study Says
Researchers have once again shown that the tired old amotivational syndrome theory is just another reefer madness myth.
Published on March 4, 2022

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A new research study has found that college students who use cannabis are actually more motivated than non-users, further dispelling the stigma of the lazy stoner stereotype.

Psychiatrists have codified this lazy stoner myth as an actual diagnosis, officially known as “marijuana amotivational syndrome.” According to this theory, regular cannabis use can decrease motivation and destroy concentration, preventing stoners from succeeding at school or in life. But although shrinks continue to diagnose kids with this disorder every day, the evidence supporting this theory is actually pretty weak.

Some studies have suggested that these claims are true, but other researchers discovered that these studies failed to consider important confounding variables, like underlying mental health issues or alcohol use. More recent studies on the topic suggest that amotivational syndrome and cannabis use disorder are in fact both symptoms of depression, a condition that affects nearly 10 percent of teens in the US.

A team of researchers from the University of Memphis decided to conduct a new study to discover whether or not the amotivational syndrome theory actually holds water. The researchers recruited 47 college students, including 25 frequent cannabis users and 22 non-users. Each subject completed the Effort-Expenditure for Rewards Task (EEfRT), a behavioral analysis that tracks subjects' motivation levels and effort-based decision-making skills.

The EEfRT is a multi-level game that asks subjects to choose between an easy task or a hard task. Participants who complete the easy tasks receive a small monetary reward, and those who complete the harder tasks receive even more money. This paradigm has been used in over 100 laboratories to explore motivational deficits as well as psychiatric or neurological disorders.

If the amotivational theory were true, cannabis users would be expected to choose the low-effort tasks over the more difficult choices. Instead, the exact opposite turned out to be true. The researchers found that the subjects who had been diagnosed with cannabis use disorder or who got high more frequently were actually more likely to select the higher-effort tasks than subjects who abstained from weed.

“Greater levels of both cannabis use days and symptoms were associated with an increased likelihood after controlling for Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) symptoms, distress tolerance, income, and delay discounting,” the study authors wrote. “The results provide preliminary evidence suggesting that college students who use cannabis are more likely to expend effort to obtain reward, even after controlling for the magnitude of the reward and the probability of reward receipt. Thus, these results do not support the amotivational syndrome hypothesis.”

“There is a perception among the general public that cannabis leads to amotivation and diminished effortful behavior,” the study, recently published in the Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology journal, concluded. “Our results do not support the amotivational hypothesis but, instead, that cannabis use is associated with a greater likelihood of selecting high effort trials.”

Due to the small size of the study, it's impossible to conclude that cannabis can actually increase motivation for anyone who uses it. The research does back up other, larger studies that suggest that the amotivational syndrome theory is inaccurate, though. Last year, another study assessed long-term motivation in a sample of 401 teens over five years, and found that teens who chose to use cannabis were just as motivated as those who didn’t.

These new studies add to a growing body of research that is debunking prohibition-era cannabis myths. Recent studies have disproved the “gateway drug” myth, confirmed that regular pot use doesn't cause brain damage, and thoroughly demonstrated that weed doesn't increase the risk of psychosis, depression, or suicide.

Chris Moore
Chris Moore is a New York-based writer who has written for Mass Appeal while also mixing records and producing electronic music.
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