How Does a Sense of Self Control Influence Marijuana Use?

Cannabis (marijuana, hashish and hashish oil) is widely known as one of the world’s most popular recreational substances. Current evidence indicates that an individual’s expectations about the pros and cons of using the drug strongly influence that individual develops a regular pattern of intake. In a study published in January 2014 in the journal Addiction, researchers from several Australian institutions examined how a person’s belief that he or she controls participation in cannabis use alters his or her opinion on the drug’s benefits and harms.

Cannabis Use Basics

Most cannabis users seek out marijuana, hashish or hashish oil in order to experience certain mind-altering effects of THC, the drug’s main active ingredient. Typically, these sought-after effects include such things as a pleasurable feeling of well-being called euphoria, a sense of relaxation and an increased sense of ease and benevolence in social situations. However, any user of the drug can also experience unwanted effects that include such things as paranoia, a fearful or panicky emotional state and a mindset that strongly resembles psychosis, the delusional and hallucinatory state most commonly associated with schizophrenia. In addition, all cannabis users run the risk of developing potentially dangerous short-term declines in situational awareness, body control and higher-level mental function. Habitual users of the drug (as well as some occasional users) also have very significant chances of developing serious problems that include a cannabis addiction, long-term declines in mental function and lung or airway damage or disease. Cannabis use can also trigger latent cases of schizophrenia in susceptible individuals or make existing schizophrenia symptoms worse.

A Belief in Self-Control

Psychologists call a belief in your ability to control your own actions “self-efficacy.” As a rule, people with high levels of self-efficacy feel capable of doing such things as thinking for themselves, independently setting their own goals, taking steps to follow through on their goals and taking responsibility for the outcome of their choices. Conversely, people with low levels of self-efficacy tend to feel that others must make their decisions for them, have relatively little belief in their ability to set goals or stick to goals and have a tendency to deemphasize their responsibility for their actions. The level of self-efficacy is not predetermined for any given individual. Instead, it grows through encouragement and positive experiences of self-control and diminishes through lack of encouragement and negative experiences of self-control.

Self-Efficacy’s Influence on Cannabis Use

Essentially all cannabis users (and the users of other substances) consciously or unconsciously weigh the potential benefits and the possible harms of their drug participation. The end result of this weighing process is commonly known as an individual’s drug expectancy. People who expect to benefit from drug use will likely engage in drug use, while people who expect harm from drug use will likely avoid drug use.

In the study published in Addiction, researchers from Australia’s University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology and Princess Alexandra Hospital assessed the impact of self-efficacy on cannabis users’ drug expectancies. They conducted this assessment with the help of 1,115 individuals with an average age of 26 seeking treatment for cannabis abuse or cannabis addiction. All of the participants took tests designed to determine their expectations regarding cannabis use, as well as their level of self-efficacy toward cannabis use. In addition, each participant was assessed for his or her level of cannabis intake and degree of reliance on the drug.

The researchers found that having a feeling of self-control regarding cannabis use significantly affected the study participants’ expectancies for the drug. Individuals who felt able to decline opportunities to use cannabis were much more capable of articulating the pros and cons of drug intake and using those pros and cons as a basis for their decision-making process. When the participants with well-established self-efficacy developed an overall negative opinion of cannabis, their weekly intake of the drug fell substantially. In addition, as a whole, the participants with well-established self-efficacy had a more negative attitude toward cannabis use than the participants with low self-efficacy.

Significance and Considerations

Self-efficacy is a vital part of a theory of learning called social cognitive theory. In essence, this theory states that social interactions and experiences play a significant role in how people acquire knowledge. The authors of the study published in Addiction believe their findings support the usefulness of social cognitive theory as a means of understanding the motivations for using cannabis and other substances.