Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Effect of cannabis on motivation

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Cannabis and motivation:
What is the effect of cannabis on motivation?


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A flowering female Marijuana Plant, usually referred to as a 'Bud'.



“If I smoke dope, will I lose all motivation, drop out of school and wander listlessly through life?”


…unless, you started in your early teens, smoked fairly regularly (daily) through-out your teens, are male, etc.Emblem-ohno

But! If you are that person, studies have shown that because you are in university, it probably won’t affect your long-term motivation, happiness or success.

If you want to know about all of the science behind this, keep reading!!!

Potentially(informal, not specific), depression, with or without cannabis use, appears to have the single biggest effect on our motivation(cite?). So, if you are really finding it hard to get going on a lot or most days, whether you use cannabis or not, take time to talk to someone. BeyondBlue (random placement of this resource)

It has been suggested that excessive cannabis use can lead to amotivation or, more properly, Amotivational syndrome (who has suggested it? cite). While it is difficult to deny the anecdotal evidence for 'diminished inspiration to participate in social situations and activities' in users, research has produced mixed results and, in fact, empirical evidence suggests that amotivational syndrome does not exist[factual?]. Further, conflicting results from laboratory interventions in animals (Paule, Allen, Bailey, Scallet, Ali, & Brown, 1992; Stiglick & Kalant, 1983), humans (Lane, Cherek, Pietras, & Steinberg, 2005), longitudinal studies (Parker, Williams, & Aldridge, 2002) diary case studies (Baseman, 2009) and survey research (Barnwell, Earleywine, & Wilcox, 2006) shows that motivational impact, if any, is likely to be contingent on age of user (adolescent/adult) at initiation/escalation to regular use, chronic consumption and co-morbid psychological conditions like depression.


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The Chinese character for hemp (麻 or má) depicts two plants under a shelter. Cannabis cultivation dates back at least 3000 years in Taiwan[factual?].

While the cannabis plant has been cultivated for industrial hemp, medicine, as a psychoactive drug, for recreational purposes and use in religious rituals for millennia, it is most often perceived in a negative context today in the West.


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The Marijuana Tax Act effectively made possession or transfer of cannabis illegal throughout the United States under federal law. Until 1937, 'marihuana' and its extracts were commonly prescribed by doctors and dispensed by pharmacists[factual?].

Cannabis indica fluid extract, American Druggists Syndicate, pre-1937.
  • Amotivational Syndrome

While the term 'Amotivational Syndrome' was first used by US government researcher, Dr. Louis West, UCLA, to capture a series of behaviours he claimed to have proven associations with cannabis use[grammar?]. This research was later found to be 'purposefully biased' and 'unscientific' (Lee, 2012).


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  • THC's impact on the brain. tetrahydrocannibinol (THC) is the psychoactive chemical found in cannabis. It binds with the body’s own cannabinoid receptors, which are found in varying degrees throughout the organs of the body. Like most drugs open to abuse, cannabis increases dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure centre of the brain. THC binds to the numerous cannabinoid receptors in the ventral tegmental area of the mid-brain, which houses many of the axons for the nucleus accumbens. This leads to a reduction in the release of GABA, an inhibitory neurochemical. As a result, the nucleus accumbens becomes under-inhibited, which leads to hyper-stimulation producing euphoria (Kalat, 2013). THC also mimics the natural cannabinoid anandamide which causes the brain to release extra serotonin, which leads to a feeling of euphoria (Kallat, 2013).
  • Areas of the brain associated with motivation. The primary brain region associated with motivation is the limbic system which is made up of core structures that are connected by the median forebrain bundle (MFB): the nucleus accumbens (NA), the ventral tegmental area (VTA), the ventromedial and lateral nuclei of the hypothalamus, and the amygdala (Kalat, 2013).
  • Neurochemicals associated with motivation. The primary neurochemical involved in the brain’s reward system is dopamine. Dopamine is released in response to a pleasurable experience, especially when unexpected[factual?]. It focuses attention, motivates action (or inaction) and is involved in any goal-directed behaviour. It makes us feel good about pleasurable experiences and makes us want to do it some more!


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FUN FACT The endocannabinoid anandamide comes from the Sanskrit word for bliss, which is ananda (Kalat, 2013).
  • The primary psychological effects of cannabis consumption are a sense of euphoria and bliss. This is accompanied by increased sociability at low to moderate doses and paranoia and anxiety at toxic doses (Hall, 2014).
  • Time alteration. Cannabis users report an altered perception of time (Kalat, 2013; Tinklenberg, Roth, & Kopel, 1976; Green, Kavanagh, & Young, 2003). This phenomenon has also been observed in rats[how?] (Han & Robinson, 2001).


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  • Social lubricant. One of the primary effects of cannabis consumption is increased sociability[Provide more detail][explain?]. This is likely due to both the change in dopamine/serotonin balance in the brain, as well as, the location in which dopamine is released (Treadway, Ansari, Baldwin, Buckholz, Cowan, Li, Woodward, Schwartzman, & Zaid, 2012). Because of the serotonin release, THC also makes you feel relaxed, sometimes to the point of drowsiness (Boserman, 2009).


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  • Stigma -Cannabis users in Western countries report ostracisation leading to feelings of social stigma (Parker, Williams, & Aldridge, 2009). Social stigma for a variety of conditions, including drug use, has been linked to increased feelings of depression (Barnwell, Earleywine, & Wilcox, 2006).
  • Incarceration - Criminalisation of cannabis in most Western countries, including Australia, often leads to incarceration and in some cases, life imprisonment for relatively small amounts of the psychoactive substance (Lee, 2012). Inmates of the prison system have higher rates of drug abuse, including cannabis, depression, and other mental illness (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2012)
  • Loss of Autonomy/Opportunity - Periods of incarceration, loss of employment due to drug use/drug testing.
  • Loss of income - All of the above factors can contribute to a drop in or total loss of income. Loss of job/financial stress are major contributing factors to depression [1]

Okay! That’s all of the ‘what causes what to happen and when’! It’ll all make sense when we start trying to look at research in the next section, but before we do,

Time For A Quiz!

1 The human body has natural cannabinoid receptors. True or False?


2 Consumption of cannabis results in an increase in which neurochemicals?

Brain Fart

3 Which region of the brain is most closely linked to motivation?

Frontal Cortex
Limbic System

4 There is empirical evidence showing a link between cannabis use and amotivational syndrome. True, or false?



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  • Definitions: In the majority of literature published before 1990, heavy cannabis consumption was defined as one to two times per week (Hall, 2014); however, the papers referenced below tend to use the following levels:
  1. Abstinence (No consumption)
  2. Occasional User (1 joint or equivalent, 1-2 times per week)
  3. Heavy User (1+ joints or equivalent, daily or close to daily use)
  • Tools to measure motivation:

The various tools mentioned in research below are all validated methods for measuring motivation or the outcomes of motivated action. Each form of validation is linked to its Wikipedia article for better understanding.

Conflicting Evidence

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YES! Cannabis Use Causes Motivational Problems:

  1. PIHL & SIGAL (1978), — One-hundred-and-twelve males were randomised to one of 4 groups-Cannabis/Placebo +/- Hi/Low Instruction. Variables assessed were time related measures of motivation and persistence. Both active (cannabis) groups performed significantly worse in tasks relating to motivation.[Provide more detail]
  2. FOLTIN ET AL. (1989)— Fifteen males volunteers were randomised to 5 groups and lived in a residential lab for 3 weeks. All participants were required to smoke 1-2 cannabis/placebo cigarettes per day. Participants exposed to the active substance were found to perform worse on persistence tasks and timed-related indicators of motivation.[Provide more detail]
  3. PAULE ET AL. (1992)— Assigned 62 male rhesus monkeys to 8 treatment groups for one year. Groups included high to low to no (placebo) cannabis use as well as residual (previously active) or active use. Both 'active' groups performed more poorly on the motivation tasks than those either 'inactive' or 'residual'. These effects disappeared after two to three months of cessation of treatment.[Provide more detail]
  4. LANE ET AL (2005)— Recruited 14 self-identified 'heavy-users' (10 male/4 female) and 20 'non-users' (13 male/7 female) and compared results between the two groups after 3 days of 'working' on Progressive-ratio (work option) reinforcement schedule or a Fixed-ratio (non-work option) reinforcement schedule. Heavy users didn't persist as long and earned more money from the non-work option than those who didn't use cannabis.[Provide more detail]

NO! Cannabis Use Does Not Cause Motivational Problems

  1. KUPFER ET AL. (1973)— In a large[explain?] epidemiological survey, heavy cannabis users were compared to light cannabis users across a range of health variables, stable personality traits and 'amotivational syndrome'. The results suggested no overall pattern of psychiatric or motivational issues across user groups. The authors suggested that 'impaired motivation may be a manifestation of depression, rather than a consequence of frequent marijuana use.
  2. BARNWELL, EARLEYWINE, & WILCOX (2006)— Four-hundred-and-eighty-seven people were recruited to participate in on-line research. Based on self-reported cannabis consumption, the volunteers were placed into two groups, non-users(never) and frequent-users(daily). The groups were compared on results from the Apathy Evaluation Scale and Satisfaction With Life Scale. Although numerous robust statistical methods were used, no difference in motivation was found between the two groups.
  3. GOODE (1971) Drug Use and Grades in College— Examining a range of performance factors both during university and after graduation, cannabis users were likely to have as good or better grades than non-users and were more likely to pursue a post-graduate degree.
  4. MUSTY & KABACK (1995)— Heavy cannabis users with or without depression were compared to light cannabis users, with or without depression on the Orientation to Life Scale and a modified form of the Thematic Apperception Test No differences were found between cannabis use groups, but a strong positive correlation was found between those with depression and low motivation.

Time For A Quiz!

1 What are some common themes in the YES group of studies?

Disproportionate male/female ratio
Only conducted on animals
Really, really old
Many tasks are 'time' related
Current state depression not measured
They all said cannabis impacts on motivation

2 What are some common themes in the NO group of studies?

They're all in Italian
They are all 'self-report' studies
Depression was often found to be associated with low motivation
Heavy cannabis use was associated with low motivation

Motivational Theories

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Drive theory suggests that our motivations are fundamentally evolutionary aspects designed to favour those able to fulfilling[grammar?] their basic needs[factual?]. When a need is not met, an internal mechanism drives behaviour until the need is satisfied.

Lane (2005) claims support for cannabis' impact on drive theory motivation by providing references to survey research which found that older cannabis users found that they lacked 'drive'.[Provide more detail]

Gray's approach/avoidance theory is based in the physical realm where activation of either the right pre-frontal cortex (behavioural inhibition system [BIS]) or left pre-frontal cortex (behavioural activation system [BAS]) causes a person to either engage in or avoid a particular action[factual?].

If this is the true source of motivation, performance may be impacted by changes in blood flow to the cerebral cortex following acute use of cannabis which may persist for some hours (Hall, 2004).

The socio-cognitive perspective states that there is no high/low motivational level[factual?]. Instead, motivation is internal, personally defined and viewed in context. Success is contingent upon the completion of an internal series of goals which is constantly being assessed based on context.

Studies showing equivalent or better grades and higher levels of achievement by cannabis users in university may be an example of this perspective of motivation in action.

Alternative explanations

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  • Serotonin association with apathy: High serotonin levels in patients being treated with selective-serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRI's) have been associated with reversible apathy condition (Morett, Isaac, & Briley, 2009).
  • Stigma and motivation: Numerous studies [factual?] have suggested an association between stigmatisation of an individual or group and depression.
  • Acute intoxication versus state/trait change: The World Health Organisation stated:

The evidence for an 'amotivational syndrome' among adults consists largely of case histories and observational reports (e.g., Kolansky & Moore, 1971; Millman & Sbriglio, 1986). The small number of controlled field and laboratory studies have not found compelling evidence for such a syndrome (Dornbush, 1974; Negrete, 1983; Hollister, 1986)... [I]t is doubtful that cannabis use produces a well defined amotivational syndrome. It may be more parsimonious to regard the symptoms of impaired motivation as symptoms of chronic cannabis intoxication rather than inventing a new psychiatric syndrome. (Barnwell et al., 2006, p. ? [missing something?])

The two most likely alternative explanations

  • Depression
    • Depression, regardless of level of cannabis use appears to be associated with lower motivation[factual?].
  • Altered time perception
    • Multiple experiments using time-related motivational evaluators found an apparent association between cannabis use and low motivation. However, an alternate and plausible hypothesis is that cannabis users perform more slowly because of a different perception of time.


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There is certainly observational data and anecdotal evidence for low motivation states in acute cannabis intoxication (Hall, 2014). Social and political conditions which lead to prohibition and criminalisation of cannabis could be contributing disproportionately to the low motivation states being experienced some cannabis users by adding unduly to stressors which lead to depression. There is evidence suggesting that people who use cannabis may experience low levels of state motivation, however, these states have reversed upon discontinuation of use[factual?].

In reviewing the research it would appear that there is a great deal of opportunity to look into the direction of time-altered consciousness during cannabis use and motivational outcomes as well as a clear suggestion that greater research be attempted looking at the associations between low motivation and depression with or without cannabis.

Also, a glaring gap in knowledge voiced in a number of the papers is that there is a lack of good, longitudinal studies which would allow for baseline comparisons of motivational measures expressed early in life and compared over time in a with-in groups analysis.

See also

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Australian, T. R. (2007). Book Reviews. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 41(9), 775–776. doi:10.1080/00048670701519955

Barnwell, S. S., Earleywine, M., & Wilcox, R. (2006). Cannabis, motivation, and life satisfaction in an internet sample. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 1, 2. doi:10.1186/1747-597X-1-2

Boserman, C. (2009). Diaries from cannabis users: an interpretative phenomenological analysis. Health (London, England : 1997), 13(4), 429–48. doi:10.1177/1363459309103916

Fernández-Serrano, M. J., Pérez-García, M., Schmidt Río-Valle, J., & Verdejo-García, A. (2010). Neuropsychological consequences of alcohol and drug abuse on different components of executive functions. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 24(9), 1317–32. doi:10.1177/0269881109349841

Green, B., Kavanagh, D., & Young, R. (2003). Being stoned: a review of self‐reported cannabis effects. Drug and alcohol review, 22(4), 453-460.

Hall, W. (2014). What has research over the past two decades revealed about the adverse health effects of recreational cannabis use? Addiction, (November 2013), n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/add.12703

Kopetz, C. E., Lejuez, C. W., Wiers, R. W., & Kruglanski, a. W. (2013). Motivation and Self-Regulation in Addiction: A Call for Convergence. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(1), 3–24. doi:10.1177/1745691612457575

Padala, P. R., Padala, K. P., Monga, V., Ramirez, D. a, & Sullivan, D. H. (2012). Reversal of SSRI-associated apathy syndrome by discontinuation of therapy. The Annals of Pharmacotherapy, 46(3), e8. doi:10.1345/aph.1Q656

Panksepp, J., Wright, J. S., Dobrossy, M. D., Schlaepfer, T. E., & Coenen, V. a. (2014). Affective Neuroscience Strategies for Understanding and Treating Depression: From Preclinical Models to Three Novel Therapeutics. Clinical Psychological Science, 2(4), 472–494. doi:10.1177/2167702614535913

Parker, H., Williams, L., & Aldridge, J. (2002). The Normalization of “Sensible” Recreational Drug Use: Further Evidence from the North West England Longitudinal Study. Sociology, 36(4), 941–964. doi:10.1177/003803850203600408

Paule, M. G., Allen, R. R., Bailey, J. R., Scallet, A. C., Ali, S. F., Brown, R. M., et al. (1992). Chronic marijuana smoke exposure in the rhesus monkey: II. Effects on progressive ratio and conditioned position responding. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, 260, 210–222.

Peretti-Watel, P., Guagliardo, V., Verger, P., Pruvost, J., Mignon, P., & Obadia, Y. (2004). Risky Behaviours among Young Elite-Student-Athletes: Results from a Pilot Survey in South-Eastern France. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 39(2), 233–244. doi:10.1177/1012690204043467

Pihl, R. O., & Sigal, H. (1978). Motivation levels and the marihuana high. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 87, 280–285

Pope, H. G. (2002). Cannabis, cognition, and residual confounding. Journal of the American Medical Association, 287, 1172–1174.

Tinklenberg, J. R., Roth, W. T., & Kopell, B. S. (1976). Marijuana and ethanol: differential effects on time perception, heart rate, and subjective response. Psychopharmacology, 49(3), 275-279.

Treadway, M. T., Ansari, M. S., Baldwin, R. M., Buckholtz, J. W., Cowan, R. L., Kessler, R. M., … Zald, D. H. (2012). Dopaminergic mechanisms of individual differences in human effort-based decision-making. The Journal of Neuroscience : The Official Journal of the Society for Neuroscience, 32(18), 6170–6. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.6459-11.2012

Wadsworth, E. J. K., Moss, S. C., Simpson, S. a, & Smith, a P. (2006). Cannabis use, cognitive performance and mood in a sample of workers. Journal of Psychopharmacology (Oxford, England), 20(1), 14–23. doi:10.1177/0269881105056644