How psychedelic researchers’ self-admitted substance use and their association with psychedelic culture affect people’s perceptions of their scientific integrity and the quality of their research

A three-part survey study (n=952) found that psychedelic use by (fictitious) researchers themselves led to lower ratings on integrity, but not the quality of research. Associating with psychedelic culture did influence the perception of research quality, but only if participants didn’t take psychedelics themselves.


Across three studies (total N = 952), we tested how self-admitted use of psychedelics and association with psychedelic culture affects the public’s evaluation of researchers’ scientific integrity and of the quality of their research. In Studies 1 and 2, we found that self-admitted substance use negatively affected people’s assessment of a fictitious researcher’s integrity (i.e. being unbiased, professional, and honest), but not of the quality of his research, or how much value and significance they ascribed to the findings. Study 3, however, found that an association with psychedelic culture (i.e. presenting work at a scientific conference that includes social activities stereotypically associated with psychedelic culture) negatively affected perceived research quality (e.g. less valid, true, unbiased). We further found that the latter effect was moderated by participants’ personal experience with psychedelic substances: only participants without such experience evaluated research quality more negatively when it was presented in a stereotyped context.

Authors: Matthias Forstmann & Christina Sagioglou


This paper takes the resurgence of research and the subsequent barrage of news articles about psychedelics as the reason for investigating how the views/associations of researchers influence the perceptions of people on their research.

The research was divided into three surveys with the following goals and outcomes:

  1. Self-admitted psychedelic substance use by researcher – significant (negative) effect on integrity, but no effect on the quality of research
    • This effect held for the subset of participants who used psychedelics themselves (25.4%)
    • n=185
  2. This study replicated the first one with larger sample size, a longer description/example, and found no effect on a third variable – if research should be funded
    • As in the first study, those who used psychedelics themselves had higher average scores on the variables
    • n=414
  3. Association with psychedelic culture by the researcher – a fictitious conference with (or without) psychedelic culture references negatively influenced research quality scores
    • Those who used psychedelics themselves did not use show this effect
    • n=353

Participants in this study were recruited via an online survey tool (MTurk). One drawback of the study is that it is speaking about hypothetical scenarios and thus the result might not map perfectly onto people’s perception of ‘real’ scientists.

It does show that one should be wary to both shows an association with psychedelic culture (quality) and personal use (integrity) if one cares about those variables.


Across three studies, we found that self-admitted use of psychedelics negatively affected people’s evaluation of researchers’ scientific integrity, but not of the quality of their research. However, an association with psychedelic culture negatively affected people’s perception of research quality.

After decades of stagnancy due to legal restrictions, research on psychedelic substances saw a resurgence over the past two decades, culminating in a host of recent high-impact publications in major scientific outlets.

While many research-oriented articles enthusiastically reported about the rediscovered potential of these long-ignored substances, many readers may still hold negative stereotypes about them or about people who recreationally use them.

  1. Origins of stereotypes about psychedelic substances and their users

Stereotypes about psychedelic substances and their users were prevalent in North America during the 1960s, fueled by sensationalized media reports and political campaigns aimed at reducing their use.

The media played an important role in the public’s perception of psychedelics, and thereby in the formation of stereotypes about their users. The moral panic around psychedelics was directed toward the people who used them, not at the drugs themselves.

According to Cohen (1972), moral panics typically result in stereotyping, exaggeration, sensitization, and distortion, which helped solidify common stereotypes about psychedelics and their users.

Scientific views on the dangers of psychedelics have changed, and there is no association between lifetime experience with psychedelics and markers of mental health. In fact, some research has shown that use of psychedelics by healthy individuals can positively affect their mood and relationship with nature.

While society today views psychedelics less as a threat to the social fabric than it did in the 1960, it is possible that lingering stereotypes about their users still affect people’s attitudes toward these substances and toward new scientific discoveries regarding their clinical potential.

  1. Auto-experimentation by psychedelic scientists

Shortly after LSD’s discovery, therapists began using it to treat patients suffering from conditions such as alcoholism or depression. However, with the increasing use of psychedelics by recreational users, the view on auto-experimentation shifted, leading to a de-facto ban of this practice by scientific institutions.

Some psychedelic researchers advocate auto-experimentation, while others argue that subjective experiences have already biased work in the field. Some even prefer not to state that they use psychedelics on record, due to concerns about how the outside world would perceive them and their work.

The present article investigates how publicly admitting to private use of psychedelics may negatively affect people’s perception of scientists and their work, and how this may affect how readily people follow scientific advice.

Researchers who work on psychedelics may be negatively perceived by people who associate them with psychedelic culture or who have a negative impression of psychedelic culture overall.

People may infer that a scientist is irrational, overly spiritual, or prone to magical thinking from his/her association with psychedelic culture, or that the scientist is strongly invested in the research topic.

When it comes to auto-experimentation, people may evaluate the scientific work of a researcher less favorably if they perceive a personal agenda, lower conscientiousness, lower integrity and moral character, or a motivation to justify their own use.

  1. The present research

In three experimental studies, participants’ perception of a researcher’s scientific integrity and the quality of their research were negatively affected by self-admitted psychedelic substance use or association with psychedelic culture.

All raw data for this research project can be found on the Open Science Framework. Participants were screened using various attention checks to ensure sufficient data quality.

  1. Study 1: Self-admitted substance use

In our first study, we tested whether self-admitted use of psychedelic substances by a researcher would affect lay people’s evaluation of their integrity.


A total of 201 US-American participants were recruited from MTurk and randomly assigned to one of two conditions (substance use vs no substance use).

Participants were asked to evaluate Prof. Miller’s scientific integrity and the quality of his research using 7-point Likert-type scales.

All participants were prompted to answer two simple attention check items, and demographic information, including how often they themselves had taken psychedelic substances.


We created two mean scores for evaluations of researcher integrity and research quality, with higher scores representing more positive views.

Participants who read that a professor personally used psychedelic substances rated him less positively than participants who read that he never used psychedelic substances. However, information about personal use did not significantly affect participants’ assessment of the quality of the professor’s research.

We found that participants’ own history of psychedelic use did not moderate the assessment of Prof. Miller’s integrity. Rather, the assessment of the researcher’s integrity was negatively affected by his self-admitted psychedelic substance use, regardless of participants’ own experience with psychedelics.


In Study 1, participants’ evaluations of a researcher’s integrity were negatively affected by his use of psychedelic substances. In Study 2, participants’ evaluations of the researcher’s research were not significantly affected.

  1. Study 2: Self-admitted substance use II

In our second study, we increased the sample size, counterbalanced the order of vignette texts, created more elaborate vignette texts, and added a third DV, assessing the value and significance participants ascribed to the research presented to them.


A total of 471 US-American participants participated in a study on MTurk, and were randomly assigned to one of two conditions (substance use vs no substance use).

Participants rated Prof. Miller’s scientific integrity and evaluated his research contributions using a scale of 1 to 7.

Participants were asked to indicate whether they thought Prof. Miller’s findings should be implemented, whether healthcare providers should cover the costs of this intervention, and whether the professor should receive federal funding.


Items were aggregated into three mean scores, and the results showed that the researchers’ integrity and quality of his research were positively correlated.

We found no significant effect of our experimental manipulation on evaluations of research quality. Participants evaluated the integrity of a researcher who took psychedelic substances less positively than that of a researcher who did not take these substances himself.

Participants in the substance use condition did not have a more negative view on whether research on psychedelics should be implemented or funded than did participants in the no substance use condition.

Participants’ experience with psychedelics did not moderate the effect of experimental condition on evaluations of a researcher’s integrity. In other words, people’s own experiences with psychedelics did not affect how knowing about a researcher’s self-admitted psychedelic substance use affects people’s evaluation of their scientific integrity.


Using more elaborate materials, a greater sample size, counterbalanced measures, and an additional DV, Study 2 confirmed the initial findings that self-admitted psychedelic substance use by a scientist promoted less positive evaluations of his integrity as a researcher.

  1. Study 3: Association with psychedelic culture

While self-admitted psychedelic substance use may affect perceptions of a researcher’s integrity, associations with psychedelic culture did not affect evaluations of a researcher’s research.


We collected data from 502 US-American participants using MTurk, and then excluded 149 participants. 353 participants were left, and were randomly assigned to one of two conditions.

Participants were asked to form an overall impression of a conference and then evaluate it.

The excerpt was taken from an actual conference on psychedelics and covered topics such as the effects of ayahuasca in the treatment of bipolar disorders or the efficacy of psilocybin in the treatment of depression.

Participants were presented with additional details about the conference, which differed depending on experimental condition. These details included a picture of the venue and a selection of activities that the conference offers outside of the scientific program.

Participants were asked to rate the quality of the research presented at the conference and the potential of psychedelic substances for clinical and nonclinical research on a scale from not at all to very much.

Participants completed two new attention check items and provided demographics, including a question about their own experience with psychedelic substances.


After reverse coding negative items, we created aggregate scores for evaluations of research quality and value ascriptions. These scores were correlated positively.

Participants in the association condition evaluated the quality of the research at the conference to be lower than participants in the no association condition, but did not consider psychedelic substances to be of lesser value in the clinical or non-clinical domain.

A moderation analysis revealed that participants’ own experience with psychedelics was a significant moderator of the effect of association with psychedelic culture on evaluations of research quality.

Results showed that participants without any personal experience with psychedelic substances evaluated the quality of the research less positively when it was associated with psychedelic culture versus not.


In Study 3, people’s perception of the quality of research on psychedelic substances was negatively affected by an association with psychedelic culture.

  1. General discussion

When a researcher uses psychedelics to conduct research, people evaluate this researcher’s scientific integrity negatively, but not the quality of the research itself. This effect is moderated by participants’ own history of psychedelic substance use.

Perceived trustworthiness and competence in scientific communication

Yet, the exact processes underlying the effects observed remain a matter of speculation.

Lay people are motivated to accurately perceive messages and to develop valid attitudes toward them, and they make causal inferences about the communicators of these messages. Therefore, for science communication to be effective, scientists must be perceived as credible.

People trust scientists who practice what they preach, but are averse to hypocrisy. If they perceive scientists as trying to persuade rather than inform, they trust them less and are less willing to adopt behavior change.

Personal substance use could affect perceived competence and trustworthiness. For example, people might accept more research findings from a scientist who has used them before.

The present research highlights that the perceived trustworthiness of scientists who engage in auto-experimentation may be attenuated due to participants assuming the existence of a personal agenda, or from people considering the scientist overly spiritual or having a disturbed psyche.

Association with psychedelic culture may affect both competence and trustworthiness perceptions. Competence may suffer due to a halo/horn-effect, and trustworthiness may suffer from participants believing that a strong personal association with a subculture implies personal substance use.


Psychedelic scientists should be aware that the way they present their findings and themselves affects the public’s perception of their scientific integrity and the quality of their research. By using less stereotypical imagery and language, they may positively impact the public’s perception of psychedelic research.

The way in which scientists act and behave can affect the public’s evaluation of their research. Scientists and lay people should be aware of this when dealing with a sensitive topic like illegal psychoactive substances.