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Does Weed Make You Nicer? Cannabis Use and Prosocial Behavior

cannabis empathy
Written by Alexandra Hicks

We all know that cannabis can certainly mellow you out and make you feel happy, connected, and balanced – but does that equate to being a characteristically “nicer” person? Researchers from the University of New Mexico believe that it does.  

In a recent study titled “Cannabis Consumption and Prosociality” published on May 19th in the journal, Scientific Reports, UNM researchers found that healthy young adults with regular and recent exposure to cannabis demonstrated higher levels of prosocial behaviors, as well as a heightened sense of empathy, compared to non-users. Additionally, cannabis users scored higher on standardized measurements of moral decision-making based on the notions of being fair and not harming others. 

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Teaching empathy  

Empathy is a key element of social interaction, and can be defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy is a building block of successful communication that enables us to better comprehend and process the emotions behind what others are telling us, and thus, allows us to form the correct responses.  

According to a meta-analysis of US citizen empathy test scores conducted over the last 30 years, our collective levels of empathy are dwindling. Based on questions pulled from the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, researchers found the levels of “empathetic concern” have been dropping sharply. They’ve been tracking this phenomenon since 1979, but noted that the most pronounced declines occurred after the year 2000. Typically, women are more empathetic than men, but that’s not always the case.  

For decades, it was believed the empathy was an inborn trait – you either had it or you didn’t. But more recent research has shown us the empathy can be taught and improved using certain therapies and training methods. The ability to have empathy hinges on various, complex psychological and physiological processes. Because of the way cannabis interacts with our bodies’ endocannabinoid system, and cannabinoid receptors are highly concentrated in regions of the brain that regulate emotion, such as the amygdala, it’s believed that cannabis can help overcome these emotional hindrances.  

“Cannabis can have an impact on a person’s ability to understand and share the feelings of others,“ explained Dr. Jan Roberts, psychotherapist and CEO of The Cannabinoid Institute, a medical cannabis education company. “But it depends on intention, type of cultivar used, and dosage,” she continued. Too little and you won’t get what you’re looking for. Too much, “and you can suppress or dull your emotions.” 

About the study  

Now, back to the aforementioned study. The research was broken down into two basic parts: testing for THC in 146 healthy university students aged 18 to 25, and providing the participants with a series of seven questions. Nearly half of the students tested positive for THC, and were aptly placed into a group together called “users”, and the rest of the students were the “non-users”.  

Researchers discovered that the “users” group scored higher in categories of “prosocial behaviors, moral fairness, moral harmlessness, and empathy quotient,”, but lower on “ingroup loyalty”. An interesting curveball here, is that female users scored higher in areas of “aggression” than non-users, whereas male users were found to be more “agreeable” than non-users.  

cannabis empathy

“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 lead investigator and Assistant Professor Jacob Miguel Vigil, 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.” 

Regarding other dimensions of personality, such as anger, hostility, trust of others, facial threat interpretation, extraversion, conscientiousness, emotional stability, and openness, as well as moral decision making centered on the principles of social correctness and respect for authority – no changes were noted. Researchers also found that the effects were not permanent, meaning they are almost certainly caused by the cannabis rather than being inherent personality traits in the study participants.  

“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. 

“I often refer to the Cannabis plant as a super medication, relative to most other conventional pharmaceutical products, because it is not only effective for treating the symptoms of a wide range of health conditions, quickly and relatively safely, but now we have concrete evidence that it may also help improve the average person’s psychosocial health,” said Jacob Vigil, lead investigator and Assistant Professor at UNM Department of Psychology.  

“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,” he added.  

Research on animal models 

A second paper published the same month in the journal Neuroscience & Behavioral Reviews, titled Effects of endocannabinoid system modulation on social behaviour: A systematic review of animal studies, applied this same theory to animal subjects. In this review, researchers from University of Toronto analyzed 80 existing studies that were conducted on a variety of mammals including capuchin monkeys, rats, mice, hamsters, and gerbils.  

cannabis empathy

Above all, it was important to determine whether cannabinoids influence social behaviors and interactions in animals, like they do in humans. As it turns out, they do. In a nutshell, what the study authors discovered was that direct cannabinoid receptor agonism – achieved through “experimental administration of a range of potent synthetic cannabinoids” – decreased social behaviors in animals, while indirect [receptor] activation via “enzyme inhibition or gene-knockout” increased social behaviors. 

Simply put, cannabinoids that had firsthand interactions with the endocannabinoid system, like Delta 9 THC and other psychoactive compounds in the plant, were said to decrease social behaviors, whereas compounds that had secondhand (indirect) effects on the cannabinoid receptors, like CBD, were believed to increase social behaviors. It’s worth pointing out that, although we do share many genetic similarities with the animals from the study, there are major differences as well, especially when it comes to learned social behaviors. That could explain why direct endocannabinoid activation in humans seems more helpful in social situations, as opposed to the way it affects animals.

As the authors also note, “some research has suggested cannabis might provide some symptomatic relief for conditions involving impaired social behavior.” A growing body of evidence, both clinical and anecdotal, highlight the ability of cannabis therapies to treat anxiety and other mood disorders, which can have a profound impact on social interactions.  

Final thoughts 

Although proven effective in some cases, the general consensus is that the connection between weed and empathy, or overall “niceness”, stems from a very personalized approach to cannabis use. “Everyone is different and for people who have had more stressors or trauma in their life, they may need more CBD or CBN to affect their level of empathy,” says Dr. Jan Roberts, psychotherapist and CEO of The Cannabinoid Institute.  

“Using cannabis can get you to go beyond your ego and defense mechanisms and communicate connection, reciprocity and growth but it must be based on an individual’s mind, body and, frankly, spirit,” she added. . 

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About the author

Alexandra Hicks

Managing editor at Cannadelics and U.S based journalist, helping spread the word about the many benefits of using cannabis and psychedelics.