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 20 • 10:00 AM

Homophobia Is Not a Thing of the Past

Despite growing support for LGBT rights and recent decisions from the Supreme Court regarding the legality of same-sex marriage, the battle for acceptance has not yet been decided.


October 20 • 8:00 AM

Big Boobs Matter Most

Medical mnemonics are often scandalous and sexist, but they help the student to both remember important facts and cope with challenging new experiences.


October 20 • 6:00 AM

When Disease Becomes Political: The Likely Electoral Fallout From Ebola

Will voters blame President Obama—and punish Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections—for a climate of fear?


October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance


October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.


October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”


October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.


October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.


October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.


October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.


October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.


October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.


October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.


October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.


October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.


October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.


October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.


October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.


October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.


October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?


October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.


October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.


October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?


October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.


October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.


Follow us


How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

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