Amotivational Syndrome Isn’t All About Cannabis Use

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Amotivational Syndrome doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with chronic marijuana use, but it does appear to be associated with use of reliable, easily accessible sources of instantaneous gratification.

Amotivational Syndrome (AMS) is a term that has sometimes been used to describe an uncharacteristic diminished interest in normal social and occupational pursuits, a degree of apathy toward situations that would normally evoke concern, and general indolence. Many in the professional community thought the syndrome to be both closely associated with and the result of chronic cannabis use. This belief was based largely on case studies and reports by clinicians who observed these features in their patients who used marijuana regularly and were unable to attribute them to another more typical cause such as depression, fatigue, or physical illness. But empirical studies have cast doubt not only on whether the syndrome even exists but also on whether there’s any reliable link between its purported symptoms and regular cannabis use.

Having worked for many years with individuals struggling with varying degrees of character disturbance, I believe I’ve seen my fair share of AMS cases. Naturally, I wanted to be sure there wasn’t a better explanation for what was going on with a client who appeared to be “unmotivated” before conferring such a diagnosis. Over the years, those in the helping professions have done a lot of disservice to folks struggling with some serious and debilitating conditions that we didn’t fully understand or know how to reliably detect by misperceiving the nature of their symptoms and inappropriately labeling their behavior. For example, there was a time when we more commonly labeled intelligent and capable but underachieving folks as “lazy” when they were really laboring under a learning disability. We also unfortunately labeled individuals struggling with chronic low levels of depression as uncooperative or resistant. So making sure someone isn’t really in the throes of a physical illness, struggling with a mood disturbance, or laboring under a condition that has sapped them of their usual energy is really important. But when every other reasonable possibility is ruled out for why someone doesn’t seem properly “invested” in the game of life, and you’re convinced there’s an underlying reason for it other than pure choice, and we have to give that reason a name, the AMS label arises.

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While some of the AMS-afflicted individuals I’ve worked with were indeed chronic marijuana users, many were not. Some were not substance users or abusers at all. But one thing did appear common: addiction of some sort. More particularly, folks with AMS tended to be “addicted” to activities and behaviors that provided relatively easy to procure, reliable, immediate relief from tension, and the experience of pleasure. Some struggled with pornography addictions, others with food addiction or addiction to video games. But in each case, what these individuals seemed to have lost was sufficient motivation to persist at life endeavors that offered milder, and relatively delayed “rewards.” It seemed they’d become so “dependent” on their more reliable and immediate sources of gratification that they’d lost any incentive to pursue more arduous routes to satisfaction.

A few weeks ago I wrote about what science tells us on “Why We Can’t Get Our Kids to at Least Try Healthier Foods”. It seems our brains are “wired” for economy of effort. We’re also programmed to seek out sources of starch and salt. And before we had such an abundance of highly processed food, we had to “sample” a variety of foods to quench our appetites for these things. But once we become “addicted” to easily accessible, reliable sources of starch and salt, we seem to lose incentive to try anything else. This is in many ways analogous to what seems to happen with folks who struggle with motivational deficits not attributable to a mood disturbance or other disease. Somehow, once they’ve found a reliable, easily accessible source of instantaneous gratification, they lose motivation to pursue alternatives.

There’s an old proverb that asserts “necessity is the mother of invention.” Where there is a need, and a lack of immediate availability, one is inspired to find creative ways to satisfy that need. But when so much is available to us to satisfy our cravings, and upon demand to boot, there’s less of a reason for any of us to work. Perhaps AMS is less a byproduct of the substances we use and more the result of the overabundance we enjoy.

A young man I once worked with and who struggled for years with AMS told me he was sure he’d overcome his motivational deficits once he found his “passion” in life. And there came a time when he did indeed find something that really piqued his interest, and he went to work at it harder than he ever had before. But he never fully parted company with the addictions he’d developed along the way, so despite the initial zeal he felt, it was hard for him to sustain his motivation. Compounding matters, he came from a family of “enablers” who had always made things too easy for him (see “Are You Doing Too Much?”) and he had every confidence he’d be safe and secure even if he never really learned how to properly care for himself in this life. So before he could truly unleash his passion and really start living, he’d have to both “own” and make a deliberate choice to part company with the dependencies he’d acquired; because his motivation for doing so was so tenuous, he’d need a lot of encouragement and support for any of the small efforts he made to extend himself.

The debate will likely rage for some time yet about whether AMS is real and about what role chronic substance use — especially marijuana use — plays in the syndrome. But one thing about which there is no debate is that many young people struggle with motivational problems, and the ready availability of substances and activities that can provide them with instantaneous gratification and tension release are not helping the problem. Life offers us many exciting opportunities if only we choose to grasp them. But most of life’s most wholesome rewards don’t come quickly and take some work to secure. And sometimes, when we’re already so gratified while hardly lifting a finger, we can lose all incentive to extend ourselves.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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