Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


marijuana-blunt

(PHOTO: TORBENH/FLICKR)

Marijuana Buffers Pain of Social Exclusion

• May 17, 2013 • 6:00 AM

(PHOTO: TORBENH/FLICKR)

New research suggests one reason for the popularity of pot may be that it helps people cope with the pain of loneliness.

Why smoke marijuana? Users would probably reply that numbed-out bliss is its own reward. But if smoothing out the harsh edges of reality is your goal, what bruises are you attempting to avoid?

Newly published research suggests that, at least for some, the answer is: The intense discomfort of social exclusion.

“Marijuana has been used to treat physical pain,” reports a research team led by University of Kentucky psychologist Timothy Deckman, “and the current findings suggest it may also reduce emotional pain.”

Given the drug’s long-term health effects, “This may reflect a poor way of coping,” the researchers write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, “but it may also explain some of the widespread appeal of marijuana.”

Avoiding social pain by smoking pot is not unlike taking antacids to relieve stomach pain, as opposed to addressing its root cause.

Deckman and his colleagues are building on two lines of recent research: One that shows the pain of social exclusion is more intense than we previously realized, and another revealing that physical pain and emotional pain travel similar pathways in the brain.

A 2010 paper by C. Nathan DeWall, a co-author of this new study, found the use of acetaminophen (i.e., Tylenol) reduces the pain of social rejection. A much-publicized follow-up earlier this year found that use of that same painkiller can reduce existential angst.

Since acetaminophen and marijuana work through similar brain receptors, the researchers wondered whether pot similarly softens the pain of exclusion. They describe four experiments providing evidence that indeed it does.

The first incorporated data on 5,631 Americans, who reported their level of loneliness, described their marijuana usage (if any), and assessed their mental health and feelings of self-worth. Not surprisingly, the researchers found a relationship between loneliness and feelings of self-worth, but it was significantly weaker for regular pot smokers.

“Marijuana use buffered the lonely from both negative self-worth and poor mental health,” the researchers write.

Another experiment, featuring 537 people, found those who were experiencing social pain were less likely to have suffered a major depression in the past year if they smoked pot relatively frequently.

Still another experiment, featuring 225 people, used the computer game Cyberball to create an immediate experience of social exclusion. Half the participants in the three-person game received the ball twice early on, and then never again during the course of the game. They then reacted to a series of statements designed to assess whether their need for self-esteem and belonging felt threatened—statements such as, “I had the feeling that the other players did not like me.”

The results: Those who smoked marijuana relatively frequently felt less threatened than those who smoked it less frequently, or not at all.

Together, these studies show that “marijuana use consistently buffered people from the negative consequences associated with loneliness and social exclusion,” Deckman and his colleagues conclude. But buffers are of limited usefulness.

“Humans have a fundamental need to belong,” the researchers note. “Hurt feelings motivate us to fix our relationships and re-establish social connection.”

In that sense, avoiding social pain by smoking pot is not unlike taking antacids to relieve stomach pain, as opposed to addressing its root cause (such as stress or obesity). It does work, at least for a while, but it’s also a way to avoid dealing with the underlying issue.

In the long run, weed is a poor substitute for “we.”

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


October 28 • 2:00 PM

And You Thought Your Credit Card Debt Was Bad

In Niagara County, New York, leaders took on 40-year debt to pay for short-term stuff, a case study in the perverse incentives tobacco bonds create.



October 28 • 10:00 AM

How Valuable Is It to Cure a Disease?

It depends on the disease—for some, breast cancer and AIDS for example, non-curative therapy that can extend life a little or a lot is considered invaluable. For hepatitis C, it seems that society and the insurance industry have decided that curative therapy simply costs too much.


October 28 • 8:00 AM

Can We Read Our Way Out of Sadness?

How books can help save lives.



October 28 • 6:15 AM

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.


October 28 • 6:00 AM

Why Women Are Such a Minority in Elected Office

The obvious answers aren’t necessarily the most accurate. Here, five studies help clear up the gender disparity in politics.


October 28 • 4:00 AM

The Study of Science Leads to Leftward Leanings

Researchers report the scientific ethos tends to produce a mindset that favors liberal political positions.


October 28 • 2:00 AM

Who Funded That? The Names and Numbers Behind the Research in Our Latest Issue

This list includes studies cited in our pages that received funding from a source other than the researchers’ home institutions. Only principal or corresponding authors are listed.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.