In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have conducted a variety of studies on the effects of psychedelics. Some have tried to better understand the effects of the drugs in the brain, while others are studying the potential of substances like psilocybin and LSD to treat depression and other mental illnesses.
This work obviously requires tactful communication on the part of the researchers: after all, they do not want to alienate a public who is at best ambivalent about the use of currently illegal drugs in research or in the field of mental health. Now a recently published paper in Public understanding of science highlights one thing the researchers should not do: admit to using psychedelic substances yourself. The team notes that researchers who make such a disclosure may be viewed by the public as having less integrity.
In the first study, Matthias Forstmann from the University of Zurich and Christina Sagioglou from the University of Innsbruck asked 185 participants to read a vignette about a (fictional) scientist who is investigating the use of psychedelics to treat mental disorders and has found some promising results regarding it the use of psilocybin. Half read that the professor had “extensive personal experience” with the drugs himself, while the others read that he had no such experience.
All participants then rated the professor’s academic integrity by rating how well he was described by six adjectives such as “professional” and “credible”. They also rated the quality of his research, using adjectives such as “valid” and “meaningful” to rate it.
Participants who read that the researcher took the medication himself rated his integrity significantly lower than those who read that he did not use it (regardless of whether or not the participants had any experience of taking psychedelics) . However, this information did not affect people’s judgments about the quality of his research.
A second study repeated the first with a larger number of participants and more detailed descriptions of the professor (for example, participants saw a model of a paper that he supposedly had written). The participants were also asked about that value of the findings: whether health care providers should, for example, bear the cost of using psilocybin. Again, those who read that the professor was taking psychedelics rated his integrity lower, but the two groups showed no difference in their ratings of the quality or value of the work.
There are several possible explanations for these findings, the team notes. For example, a researcher who studies but also uses psychedelics might have a hidden agenda. Or maybe it’s the illegal nature of his drug use that makes it seem like the researcher has less integrity. More work will be needed to identify these possibilities.
It should be noted that the difference in integrity ratings was not large: in the first study, the non-drug professor received an average rating of 5.6 on a seven-point scale, compared to a rating of 5 for the researcher who took drugs. Still, the study’s message seems to be that researchers should consider keeping silent about any drug use in their personal lives – or at least be aware that what they disclose can affect public perception.
And it’s not just what the researchers say themselves that matters, but also the context in which the research is presented. In a final study, participants read about a fictional scientific conference on psychedelics. All were given the same description of the scientific program, but some read that various social events related to psychedelic culture were taking place (e.g. a shamanic drum circle and psychedelic art exhibition) while others read about social events that did not have these associations (e.g. a tour of a brewery and a postmodern art exhibition).
In this case, the association with psychedelic culture reduced the participants’ perception of the quality of the research (although, interestingly, only among participants who had not used psychedelics themselves). “In order to positively influence the public’s perception of the quality of psychedelic research, it can make sense to use less stereotypical images and languages when talking about these substances, be it in media articles or at scientific conferences,” the team concludes.
– How the substance use admitted by psychedelics themselves and their association with psychedelic culture affect people’s perception of their scientific integrity and the quality of their research
Matthew Warren (@ MattBWarren) is editor of BPS Biomedarticles