Psychedelics are psychoactive substances that historically have attracted exaggerations of benefits as well as alarmism. As with most subjects that bring out extreme views, the scientific data provide a more grounded perspective. Sometimes, the scientific data require further clarification. We are responding to a thought-provoking opinion piece by Eddie Jacobs published on October 11, 2020 entitled “What if a Pill Can Change Your Politics or Religious Beliefs? Some could mistakenly take away from the piece an unrealistic impression that is not supported by the scientific data. We worry that this may lead to alarmist reactions.
Jacobs’ piece raises ethical questions regarding emerging research suggesting psychedelics may be effective psychiatric treatments. Specifically, the concern is that psychedelic therapy could shift patients’ political beliefs “in one direction along the political spectrum” or “change [their] religious beliefs.” We agree that as with any emerging medical treatment, psychedelic therapy prompts important ethical considerations; however, we believe that the possibility implied in the headline––that psychedelics prompt substantial change in political and religious beliefs or affiliations––is not supported by the current scientific data.
To be clear, Jacobs did not mention affiliations, but we believe readers might reasonably take away this interpretation. We suggest that there is no evidence that people change political or religious affiliations from psychedelic treatments, and current evidence for other kinds of belief changes is weak. Below, we address the three major studies mentioned in the original article.
The concern about political beliefs largely rests on evidence from a small pilot study of psilocybin for treating depression. The study showed an average reduction on a measure of “authoritarianism” from baseline to one week after psilocybin in seven people. Authoritarianism, as it is operationalized here using five questions that were reduced from the original version of the scale, likely does not fit neatly into a particular political party. Many people, for example, would likely disagree with the scale item “The law should always be obeyed, even if a particular law is wrong,” regardless of political affiliation.
It is also not clear that a reduction in authoritarianism (or increase in libertarianism or social/moral liberalism, the other end of the scale spectrum) holds a relation to present political affiliations. There are abundant historical examples of both left-wing and right-wing authoritarian governments (for example, communism and fascism, respectively). Moreover, in a country such as the United States, the major left-and right-leaning parties have generally had no universal leaning toward either individual freedom or state control. The position taken along this continuum is highly dependent on the subject (for example, business regulation, abortion, gun control, social constraints on sexual behavior). In fact, the developers of the scale in question preferred not to use the term “liberal” in reference to the scale because that term had a political meaning in the United States that went beyond what the scale measures.
Beyond the theoretical issues with mapping authoritarianism onto present political parties, there are also statistical concerns with this study. The finding about reduced authoritarianism barely met the threshold of significance –– and with a one-tailed t-test. A one-tailed test provides a lower standard for achieving significance compared to the much more common two-tailed test. It is unclear if the reduction would have been significant with a two-tailed test. In any case, the effect did not last. At the 7–12 month follow-up the decrease was not significant, even according to the lower standards of the one-tailed test.
Jacobs’ piece alluded to another study about political beliefs, a 1971 study exploring the association between LSD increased liberalism. This study compared three groups: 1) people who had taken LSD as a medical treatment, 2) people who had taken LSD on their own, and 3) people who had not used LSD. Only those who had taken LSD on their own indicated more support for policies like “individual freedom” and “foreign policy liberalism” compared to those who had not taken LSD.
It is possible that those who were willing to take LSD outside of medical treatment may have already been more influenced by the liberal hippie movement that encouraged these beliefs at that time (Jacobs notes that this is correlational and not causal data). Importantly, no differences were found in this study between the political beliefs of those who received LSD under medical treatment compared to those who did not take LSD. Therefore, this study actually suggests that medical psychedelic treatments do not alter political beliefs!
In terms of religious beliefs, Jacobs’ piece points to a concern about belief change on the basis of a survey study by our group at Johns Hopkins. This survey specifically recruited individuals who had a “God encounter experience” after taking a psychedelic outside of a research context. Before having such an experience during their psychedelic session, 21 percent retrospectively identified as atheist, whereas only 8 percent did after the experience. This decrease was accompanied by a decrease in identification with major religions, alongside increases in spiritual types of self-identification.
Crucially though, this study was in no way representative of the general public, as only people who reported encountering “God” or a similar phenomenon were included in the study. This was a very specific sample of people reporting a special kind of experience or interpretation of experience. The study cannot provide an estimate of population rates. Belief changes of a religious type would, of course, be massively inflated in this sample, and it is therefore not appropriate to draw generalized conclusions about belief change from psychedelic treatments based on these data.
Lastly, the piece cites the observation that under clinical conditions psychedelics increase, on average, a personality trait called openness to experience, a finding first reported by our group at Johns Hopkins and now replicated by others. Unlike the political and religious effects, this phenomenon appears more robust. However, while psychedelics might be unique in their ability to prompt a change in a personality trait with a short-term clinical procedure, they are not the only clinical intervention that can cause changes in personality traits. A large meta-analysis of over 200 published studies examining the effect of psychiatric treatments on personality traits found that personality was indeed changed.
Regardless of whether the intervention was a psychotherapy or a medication such as a traditional antidepressant drug, these changes reached a moderate effect size for increases in the trait of emotional stability, similar to the effect size observed for the increase in personality openness to experience from psilocybin. Lastly, the correlation between openness to experience and liberal political views is small, accounting for only around 2 percent of the relationship between the two variables. In other words, the pathway from psychedelics through openness to experience to political belief change is, for all practical purposes, negligible.
While data from studies are always paramount, we note that in the first author’s experience interacting with hundreds of psilocybin study participants, he does not recall any spontaneous claims of changed political or religious affiliation in either direction.
Our primary point here is that that existing data do not suggest that meaningful changes in religious or political beliefs are likely from psychedelic therapy––and certainly not changes in political or religious affiliation. There is some evidence that psychedelic therapy can prompt changes in one’s sense of spirituality, but this term is so broadly and variously defined that it does not even necessarily relate to supernatural beliefs, and it can refer to things like one’s values or sense of connection.
As with many interventions, there are cases in which individuals change in their values, attitudes and/or beliefs after a psychedelic experience. The frequency and magnitude of these occurrences are empirical questions for future research to address, but the current data simply do not support the idea that psychedelic treatments result in meaningful changes in political or religious beliefs or affiliation.
Psychedelic medicine, like any new treatment, no doubt raises important and challenging ethical issues. Consent procedures in psychedelic trials by our research group (and by other groups to our knowledge) already warn that personality and attitude changes are a possibility. Of course, this should also be done with patients if psychedelics are approved as medicine. Psychedelic experiences are sometimes held as among the most meaningful in one’s life, and may be interpreted to have philosophical or spiritual import, likely depending on the orientation of the participant. Such effects present the opportunity for ethical pitfalls by clinicians.
These and other challenges will call for important contributions from ethicists. However, we must also be careful to keep any given concern in perspective and convey realistic risks to the public and patients. From this perspective, we believe, based on the data, that major shifts in political or religious orientation or beliefs are not among the likely risks associated with this treatment. As psychedelic researchers, we believe it is important to remain vigilant against excesses in enthusiasm as well as alarmism.