Study finds people who use psychedelic drugs tend to be liberal

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New research has found a positive association between psychedelic drug use and certain political orientations. The study, published in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, found that psychedelic users tend to be liberal and anti-authoritarian.

“Psychedelic substances such as LSD, psilocybin (active ingredient in ‘magic mushrooms’) and DMT (found in ayahuasca) produce profound changes in our state of consciousness,” explained the study’s corresponding author, Matthew M. Nour. “For example, people who use psychedelics often describe a transcendent and mystical state of consciousness in which they feel a sense of oneness and unity with the world and others. In this state the sense of ‘self’ that pervades normal waking consciousness is reduced, and may disappear completely.”

“To me, the idea that a substance can produce such a profound effect on consciousness is truly fascinating, and is potentially very important for our understanding of the brain (and mind). Researchers in this field have recently become more interested in whether psychedelics are associated with more lasting changes in a person’s attitudes and personality, which are detectable long after the acute drug effects have worn off.”

Nour, a researcher and medical doctor at King’s College London, worked with researchers at Imperial College London to use an anonymous internet survey to collect data on nearly 900 adults who had used psychedelics.

“In our study we asked people who had used psychedelics in the past to answer questions about their personality, political views and relationship to nature,” he explained. “We also asked them to answer questions about their most intense experience with psychedelics, specifically focusing on whether they had experienced a self-transcendent sense of ‘ego dissolution.'”

In particular, the researchers examined two of the Big Five personality traits — openness and conscientiousness. They also examined where the participants fell on the liberal-conservative spectrum and libertarian-authoritarian spectrum.

Nour and his colleagues found that psychedelic drug use was associated with liberal and libertarian political views, higher levels of openness to new experiences, and greater nature relatedness.

“We found that people who reported the most frequent psychedelic drug use also scored higher on the personality trait of openness, and generally had more liberal political views,” Nour explained to PsyPost. “Interestingly, they also seemed to feel closer to nature and had more concern for the environment. We also found that people who reported the most intense past ego dissolution experiences on psychedelics also rated higher on openness, liberalism and nature-relatedness. This is important because it shows that it may be something about the psychedelic experience itself that is related to these personality traits and attitudes.”

“These associations were present after controlling for the influence of a person’s age, sex and educational attainment. Importantly, the same associations did not exist between a person’s history of cocaine use and their personality traits or political perspectives, showing that they are not simply associated with illicit drug use but are more specific to psychedelics.”

Nour warned that the study shouldn’t be misinterpreted as meaning that psychedelic drugs make people more liberal. Though that is a possibility, more research is need to make that determination.

“Our study was not designed to answer the question of whether psychedelic use causes a change in political views or personality traits,” he explained. “To answer this question you’d need a study that measured people’s attitudes and personality before, and after, a psychedelic experience, ideally following them up for months afterwards. Our study instead asked people who had used psychedelics in the past to rate their current views, and looked for associations between their historical psychedelic use and current views. Correlational studies cannot argue for causation: two things can be associated for all sorts of reasons, without implying that one thing causes the other. Our study establishes that an association exists between psychedelic use and the personality trait of openness, liberal political views and nature-relatedness. Future studies are needed to address whether these associations are causal.”

“People might be tempted to argue that psychedelics make people more liberal in their political views on a superficial reading of our study. Personally, I’m wary of making strong claims about the link between psychedelics and liberalism. Firstly, very little work has been done on this topic, and the studies that have been done have limitations. Our study, for example, is correlational and doesn’t provide evidence for a causal link between psychedelics and a certain political viewpoint. It’s possible, for example, that liberal people may be more likely to try psychedelics in the first instance.”

Previous research has found that a single high dose of psilocybin produced long-lasting increases in openness. But that study was relatively small, having only 51 participants.

“Also, naturally occurring psychedelics like mescaline, DMT and psilocybin have likely been used by humans for millennia, so it seems limited to view them as substances that are closely linked to a modern political viewpoint,” Nour told PsyPost. “Nevertheless, I think that there is now increasing evidence that psychedelics do help people to become more tolerant and accepting of alternative viewpoints, and perhaps less fearful of change and the unknown.”

The study, “Psychedelics, Personality and Political Perspectives” was also co-authored by Lisa Evans and Robin L. Carhart-Harris. It was published online April 26, 2017.

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