Cannabis use does not increase actual creativity, study finds, but increases the degree of creativity believed to be
Marijuana does NOT make you more creative, according to a series of studies published in the Journal of Applied Psychology that debunks a common myth and found no evidence that cannabis has any creativity-enhancing effects. However, the researchers found, however, that cannabis instilled a sense of joviality, which led cannabis users to perceive their own ideas and those of others as more creative.
Cannabis is a topic generally ignored by management and applied psychology research, with the exception of research that views cannabis as harmful to work and health, said study author Christopher Barnes (@ chris24barnes), Michael G. Foster Foundation Professor at the University of Washington.
“We felt the topic could be more nuanced and the research literature needed to be expanded accordingly. A natural first step was to examine cannabis and creativity, given the common belief that they are linked.”
For their study, the researchers recruited occasional cannabis users in Washington state. They ended up with a final sample of 191 participants, who were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. A group of participants were asked to start the study within 15 minutes of consuming cannabis. The second group was instructed to start the study only if they had not used cannabis in the past 12 hours.
Participants first indicated whether they were “happy” and “joyful” at the moment. They then performed the alternative use task, a well-established measure of a type of creativity known as divergent thinking. In this task, participants were asked to generate as many creative uses as they could for a brick in 4 minutes. They then carried out a self-assessment of their creative output.
Two research assistants and a separate sample of 430 people recruited through Prolific then viewed and assessed the 2141 ideas that were generated. In both cases, the evaluators did not know the experimental conditions.
As expected, participants in the cannabis use condition were more likely to feel “happy” and “joyful” compared to those in the control condition. Those who had used cannabis also rated their own ideas as more creative – an effect that was associated with their better mood. Unexpectedly, however, this state of joviality did not translate into increased creativity. Indeed, independent evaluators found that the ideas generated by participants who had consumed cannabis were just as creative as those of participants in the control group.
“Cannabis probably won't make you more or less creative,” Barnes told PsyPost.
In a second study, which involved 140 participants, the researchers sought to replicate and extend their findings. Participants were again randomly assigned to two conditions. But they also performed a measure of cognitive functioning known as the Sternberg memory scanning task. Instead of completing an alternative use task, participants were asked to complete a work-oriented creativity task.
“Participants were asked to imagine that they worked at a consulting company and had been contacted by a local music group, File Drawers, to help them come up with ideas to increase their income. They were told that their goal was to generate as many creative ideas as possible in 5 minutes,” the researchers explain.
As in the previous study, participants again provided a self-assessment of their creative output. In addition, they were asked to evaluate others' ideas as well.
Researchers found that cannabis use did not have a significant impact on cognitive functioning. However, participants who used cannabis tended to rate others' creativity more favorably than those in the control group. “Cannabis will make you think that you are more creative and that other people are too,” Barnes said.
These results are consistent with those of a previous study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, which found no evidence that cannabis use enhances the capacity for creativity. So why is the belief that cannabis enhances creativity so widespread? The positive self-evaluations elicited by cannabis-induced joviality could be the cause.
“The discrepancy between cannabis’s effect on self-ratings of creativity and actual creativity explains the popular belief and why it is actually incorrect,” Barnes told PsyPost.
It’s also possible that “creative types” are more attracted to cannabis. A study published in 2017 found that cannabis users had tend to be more extroverted and open to experiences. They also performed better than non-consumers on a test of convergent thinking – that is, the creative process of narrowing down potential solutions to find a correct answer. But their increased creativity is entirely explained by their greater open-mindedness.
Also, cannabis may increase creativity, but not the types of creativity tested in this study. Cannabis may still increase creativity in specific contexts, such as music and artistic production.
“We have two studies whose results are consistent,” Barnes explained. “But this is still a new and developing science. We do not consider our results to be the final word. Creativity at work in many different contexts is likely much more complex than the relatively simple creativity tasks we used in our two studies. So the effects of cannabis on creativity may very well be more complicated than what we have found at this point in the research program.”
“Cannabis has been legalized in many states, and likely will be in many more,” the researcher added. As such, many managers will either need to consider how cannabis influences their own work or manage employees who use cannabis. Rather than ignoring cannabis as a taboo subject, researchers in management and applied sciences should strive to shed more light on the effects of cannabis on work. Future results are sure to be both interesting and important.
The study, titled “Cannabis use does not increase actual creativity but biases evaluations of creativity,” was written by Yu Tse Heng, Christopher M. Barnes and Kai Chi Yam.