A set of studies published in the Journal of Applied Psychology has failed to find evidence that cannabis has creativity-enhancing effects. But the researchers did find that cannabis elicited a sense of joviality, which in turn made cannabis users perceive their own ideas and the ideas of others as more creative.
“Cannabis was legalized in Washington state a few years back. That got us talking about how cannabis is a topic which his generally ignored by the management and applied psychology research literature, with the exception of research which considers cannabis as harmful to work and health,” said study author Christopher Barnes (@chris24barnes), a Michael G. Foster Endowed Professor at the University of Washington.
“We thought there might be some more nuance to the topic, and that the research literature should 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 from Washington state. They ended up with a final sample of 191 participants, who were randomly assigned to one of two conditions. One group of participants were asked to begin the study within 15 minutes of using cannabis. The second group was instructed to only begin the study if they have not used cannabis in the past 12 hours.
The participants first reported whether they were “happy” and “joyful” at the moment. They then completed the alternative uses task, a well-established measure of a type of creativity known as divergent thinking. In the task, the participants were asked to generate as many creative uses as they could for a brick in 4 minutes. Then, they provided a self-assessment of their creative output.
Two research assistants and a separate sample of 430 individuals recruited via Prolific then viewed and rated the 2,141 ideas that had been generated. In both cases, the raters were blind to 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 consumed cannabis also rated their own ideas as more creative — an effect that was associated with their improved mood. Unexpectedly, however, this state of joviality did not translate into increased creativity. That is, the independent raters found the ideas that had been generated by those in the cannabis condition to be just as creative as those in the control condition.
“Cannabis probably won’t actually make you any more or less creative,” Barnes told PsyPost.
In a second study, which included 140 participants, the researchers sought to replicate and extend their findings. The participants were again randomly divided into two conditions. But they also completed a measure of cognitive functioning known as the Sternberg memory scanning task. Instead of completing an alternative uses task, the participants were instructed to complete a work-focused creativity task.
“Participants were instructed to imagine that they were working at a consulting firm and had been approached by a local music band, File Drawers, to help them generate ideas for increasing their revenues. They were told that their goal was to generate as many creative ideas as possible in 5 min,” the researchers explained.
As in the previous study, the participants again provided a self-assessment of their creative output. In addition, they were asked to provide evaluations of other people’s ideas as well.
The researchers found that cannabis use did not significantly impact cognitive functioning. However, participants in the cannabis condition tended to have more favorable evaluations of others’ creativity compared to those in the control condition. “Cannabis will make you think you are more creative, and make you think others are more creative as well,” Barnes said.
The findings are in line with a previous study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, which found no evidence that cannabis consumption boosted creativity ability. So why is there a widespread belief that cannabis improves creativity? The positive self-evaluations elicited by cannabis-induced joviality might be the culprit.
“The gap between the effect of cannabis on self-evaluations of creativity versus actual creativity explains the common lay belief and why it is actually incorrect,” Barnes told PsyPost.
It is also possible that “creative types” are more drawn to cannabis. A study published in 2017 found cannabis users tended to be more extraverted and open to experience. They also performed better than non-users on a test of convergent thinking — meaning the creative process of narrowing down potential solutions to find one correct answer. But their enhanced creativity was entirely explained by their heightened openness to experience.
In addition, cannabis might increase creativity — just not the types of creativity that were tested in the current research. It is still possible that cannabis does increase creativity in specific contexts, such as musical and artistic production.
“We have two studies which have consistent findings,” Barnes explained. “But this is still a new and developing science. We would not consider our findings to be the final word. Creativity at work across many different contexts is probably much more complex than the relatively simple creativity tasks we used in our 2 studies. So the effects of cannabis on creativity may very well be more complicated than what we found at this stage in the program of research.”
“Cannabis has become legalized in many states, and probably will become legalized in many more,” the researcher added. “So many managers will either have to consider how cannabis influences their own work, or manage employees who use cannabis. Rather than ignore cannabis as a taboo topic, management and applied scholars should work to further enlighten the effects of cannabis on work. Future results are bound to be both interesting and important.”
The study, “Cannabis use does not increase actual creativity but biases evaluations of creativity“, was authored by Yu Tse Heng, Christopher M. Barnes, and Kai Chi Yam.