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Sorry, weed probably does not make you more creative

In experiments, the work of light cannabis users was not rated as more creative than of nonusers

An illustration of someone painting on an easel, with a cloud of smoke covering their head.
(George Wylesol for The Washington Post)
6 min

Many cannabis users are convinced that the drug not only heightens their mood, but also their creativity.

Creative luminaries also seem to endorse this idea. Steve Jobs said that marijuana and hashish would make him “relaxed and creative” while astronomer and author Carl Sagan believed that cannabis helps produce “serenity and insight.” In the artistic sphere, Lady Gaga said she smokes “a lot of pot” when writing music, and Louis Armstrong called marijuana “an assistant and friend.”

Despite these popular beliefs about the creative potency of cannabis, scientific consensus has remained hazy.

Now new research suggests that cannabis may not be a gateway drug to creativity after all.

“Almost everyone thinks that cannabis makes them more creative. And it seems like that assumption is not supported by the data,” said Christopher Barnes, professor of organizational behavior at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business and an author of the study.

Cannabis raises mood but not creativity

The researchers originally hypothesized that cannabis would indirectly increase creativity by making users feel more jovial. After all, cannabis tends to lift moods, which in turn could produce the change in mind-set that fuels creativity.

To test this idea, researchers designed a randomized controlled trial comparing the creative outputs of light cannabis users who had just imbibed vs. those who had not.

In a first set of experiments, about 107 light users of cannabis were asked to take a standard creativity test within 15 minutes of getting high. For the control group, the researchers asked 84 other participants to do the task only if they had not used cannabis in the past 12 hours, by when any effects would have worn off.

For the creativity test, the participants were asked to consider a brick, and generate as many creative uses as possible for it in four minutes.

As expected, participants who were under the influence felt more jovial, which made them feel like their ideas were more creative than sober participants.

But creativity assessments by third-party raters, who did not know who was under the influence, were a buzzkill. When they rated the responses on novelty and usefulness, they did not see a difference in creativity.

A second set of experiments showed similar results in a work-related creativity task. In that study, 140 participants were asked to imagine they worked at a consulting firm hired to increase revenue for a local band. They were instructed to generate as many creative ideas as they could in five minutes. Then they were asked to rate others’ creativity.

Just as in the first experiments, participants under the influence of cannabis believed that their own ideas were more creative compared with the control participants while third-party raters did not.

Interestingly, being under the influence also made the intoxicated cannabis users think that other people’s ideas were more creative.

“When you’re under the influence of cannabis, and you’re experiencing joviality, you think everything is creative and great,” Barnes said. “Your work or other people’s work, it’s all great.”

The bottom line: Being high did not exactly set the participants’ creativity ablaze — even if it made every “highdea” sound amazing.

Cannabis users are more open, which may be why they are creative

While evidence suggests that creativity is not heightened when high, researchers wondered if it was possible that long-term use of cannabis could make someone more creative.

In one study, researchers enrolled over 700 undergraduate students who were either chronic cannabis users or nonusers. Even when sober, the cannabis users self-reported higher creativity and also performed better on a test measuring convergent thinking, an aspect of creativity for finding solutions to a problem, compared with the nonusers.

It was not, however, the cannabis use that explained these creative differences. The personality of the cannabis users mattered.

Cannabis users tended to rate high on the openness personality trait, meaning they were more likely to seek out new experiences, which itself was bound to creativity. When researchers accounted for openness, the cannabis-creativity connection was no longer up to snuff.

“This suggests that people who are open to experience are more likely to use cannabis, and they’re also more likely to be creative,” said Carrie Cuttler, psychology professor at Washington State University and an author of the study.

Budding science on cannabis

Based on the research literature, Cuttler believes that cannabis could produce “subtle enhancements” but “it’s probably a much smaller effect than what people think, and what popular culture would suggest,” she said.

Creativity is not one thing and has many different components. Cannabis probably affects it in both positive and negative ways, Barnes said.

Cannabis can relieve stress and anxiety, for example, which may help some people with their creative process, Cuttler said.

Before cannabis connoisseurs get bummed out, it is worth considering that the research shows that, while getting high may not dramatically enhance creativity, it did not appear to impair creativity either, at least at relatively low doses.

Existing studies have limitations in how they can test potentially important parameters of cannabis use, such as dose and strain, because of federal regulations. And there are limitations to how creativity research can be easily performed in the lab — arguably, the creativity needed for producing great works of art, new technologies or scientific breakthroughs may be different and harder to capture than asking someone to think up uses for a brick.

“A lot of the assumptions we have about the effects of cannabis might be off-base,” Barnes said. “So we shouldn’t hold those assumptions too tightly; we should encourage research.”

Do you have a question about human behavior or neuroscience? Email and we may answer it in a future column.

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