In the past few years, psychologists and neuroscientists have conducted a large number of studies into the effects of psychedelic drugs. Some have sought to better understand the effects of the drugs in the brain, while others are investigating the potential for substances like psilocybin and LSD to treat depression and other mental health conditions.
This work obviously require tactful communication on the part of researchers: after all, they don’t want to alienate a public who may be at best ambivalent about the use of currently illegal drugs in research or mental health settings. Now a recent paper in Public Understanding of Science highlights one thing researchers shouldn’t do: admit to using psychedelic substances themselves. The team finds that researchers who make such a disclosure may be seen by the public as having less integrity.
In the first study, Matthias Forstmann at the University of Zurich and Christina Sagioglou at the University of Innsbruck asked 185 participants to read a vignette about a (fictitious) scientist who studies the use of psychedelics to treat mental health disorders, and who has found some promising results regarding the use of psilocybin. Half read that the professor has “extensive personal experience” with the drugs himself, while the others read that he has no such experience.
All participants then assessed the professor’s scientific integrity, by rating how well he was described by six adjectives such as “professional” and “credible”. They also evaluated the quality of his research, rating it on adjectives like “valid” and “meaningful”.
Participants who had read that the researcher took the drugs himself rated his integrity significantly lower than those who had read he didn’t use them (this was true regardless of whether the participants themselves had experience taking psychedelics). However, this information didn’t influence people’s judgements about the quality of his research.
A second study replicated the first, with a greater number of participants and more elaborate descriptions of the professor (for instance, participants saw a mock-up of a paper he had supposedly written). Participants were also asked about the value of the findings: whether healthcare providers should cover the costs of using psilocybin, for example. Again, those who read that the professor took psychedelics rated his integrity lower, but the two groups didn’t show any difference in their ratings of the quality or value of the work.
There are a few possible explanations for these results, the team notes. A researcher who studies psychedelics but also uses them might be seen as having a hidden agenda, for instance. Or perhaps it is the illegal nature of his drug use that makes it seem as though the researcher has less integrity. Further work will be needed to tease out these possibilities.
It’s worth pointing out that the difference in integrity ratings wasn’t huge: in the first study, the non-drug-using 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 message of the study seems to be that researchers should consider keeping quiet about any drug use in their personal lives — or at least be aware that what they disclose can influence public perceptions.
And it’s not just what researchers themselves say that’s important, but also the context in which the research is presented. In a final study, participants read about a fictitious scientific conference on psychedelic drugs. All were given the same description of the scientific programme, but some read that various social events were happening which had associations with psychedelic culture (e.g. a shamanic drum circle and a psychedelic art exhibition), while the others read about social events which didn’t have these associations (e.g. a tour of a brewery and a postmodern art exhibition).
In this case, the association with psychedelic culture did lower participants’ perceptions of the quality of the research (though, interestingly, only among participants who hadn’t used psychedelic drugs themselves). “In order to positively impact the public’s perception of the quality of psychedelic research, it may be sensible to use less stereotypical imagery and language when talking about these substances, be it in media articles or scientific conferences,” the team concludes.