Psychedelic research has revolutionised the psychiatric field in the last few years. The recent clinical trials on Psychedelic substances for treating all sorts of afflictions from PTSD to anxiety, borderline personality disorder, and even eating disorders are no longer oddities in this field like they used to be. Psychedelic substances are also being explored in less clinical, more personal settings such as enhancing productivity or awakening divine energy during meditation. Given their impact on mental acuity, could Psychedelics also affect social perception? Research surrounding especially MDMA gives a clue of how this prosocial substance influences how humans see each other.
What is social perception, and can it be changed?
According to experts in this field, social perception refers to the ability to make precise interpretations and speculations about other people from their physical appearance, non-verbal and verbal communication. This includes things like facial expressions, hand gestures, body language and movement, and the tone of voice.
Social perception also refers to the inner mechanism of identifying and using these social cues to make judgements about social roles, relationships, rules, context and even characteristics like trustworthiness in others. Social perception also includes social knowledge, which refers to the knowledge of social roles, rules, and structures surrounding social situations and interactions.
According to Social Reference Theory, any perceptions must be understood in the context of a reference, and it is self-evident that without a reference, no perception exists. The theory also proposes that changing the reference can change a person’s perception and that the reason why different people disagree on the same issue is that they have different references.
A study published in The Journal of General Psychology in 2020 strived to examine whether changing the reference could really change a person’s perception. Researchers randomly selected a group of undergraduate students who were asked to rate the attractiveness of an average looking person presented among other pictures of either more or less attractive people.
From this study, the researchers concluded that changing the reference can change an individual’s perception, which can be applied to all aspects of social perception. A person who normally does not stand out as well-dressed will seem very well-dressed when seen next to dishevelled.
The role Psychedelics play in the alteration of social perception
Previous studies have shown that Psychedelic substances like MDMA produce prosocial effects such as enhanced feelings of empathy and closeness. However, it is still not fully understood how exactly the substance— MDMA alters basic emotional processes to produce these effects or whether it produces changes in actual social behaviour. While the relationship between these findings and social perception might not be completely clear at first glance, according to experts, feelings and mindset are the contributing factors to social perception. And from the research, it is proven that if MDMA causes someone to feel more empathetic, their social perception is going to be affected by these feelings of empathy.
In a recently published study, the researchers examined how MDMA affects perceptions of and responses to emotional expressions, also testing its effects on behaviour during social interaction. Over three sessions, 36 healthy participators with histories of previous MDMA consumption received either MDMA or placebo under double-blind conditions. The study uncovered that MDMA slowed the perception of angry expressions and increased psychophysiological responses to happy expressions and the use of positive wording and empathy in social interactions.
This series of studies and results mean that Psychedelic substances like MDMA affect social perception. Especially the Psychedelic substance MDMA alters basic emotional processes by slowing the identification of negative emotions and increasing responses to positive emotions.
These results also suggest that Psychedelic substances positively affect behaviour and perceptions during social interactions, meaning that if, for example, someone rolls their eyes in disagreement during a conversation, the person who is under the influence of MDMA might not recognise this as a sign of irritation, which could negatively impact social perception under regular circumstances. The findings also suggest that Psychedelic substances may produce better effects when they are consumed in the presence of proper administrators with the right set and settings.
Despite clinical interest in Psychedelic substances like MDMA, the scientific community has only limited understanding of the basic emotional processes involved in its prosocial effects. Researchers like Gillinder Bedi and Cédric M Hysek previously have shown that MDMA reduces the perception of negative emotional expressions and reduces amygdala responses to angry facial expressions. Previous researchers also hypothesised that MDMA might improve recognition of positive expressions, particularly ambiguous positive expressions and increase striatal responses to happy expressions, which clearly indicates that Psychedelic substances like MDMA can actually alter social perception.
- Bedi, G., Phan, K. L., Angstadt, M., & de Wit, H. (2009). Effects of MDMA on sociability and neural response to social threat and social reward. Psychopharmacology, [online] Volume, 207(1), p. 73–83. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-009-1635-z [Accessed 10th January 2022].
- Hysek, C. M., Domes, G., & Liechti, M. E. (2012). MDMA enhances “mind-reading” of positive emotions and impairs “mind-reading” of negative emotions. Psychopharmacology, [online] Volume, 222(2), p. 293–302. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00213-012-2645-9b [Accessed 10th January 2022].
- The Oxford Review. (2020). Social perception: Definition and explanation. [online] Available at: https://oxford-review.com/oxford-review-encyclopaedia-terms/social-perception/ [Accessed 10th January 2022].
- Wardel, C. M. and de Wit, H. (2015). MDMA alters emotional processing and facilitates positive social interaction. Psychopharmacology, [online] Volume, 231(21), p. 4219-4229. Available at: https://dx.doi.org/10.1007%2Fs00213-014-3570-x [Accessed 10th January 2022].
- Zhao, S., & Zhang, J. (2019). Can perception be altered by change of reference? A test of the Social Reference Theory utilising college students’ judgments of attractiveness. The Journal of General Psychology, [online] Volume, 147(4), p. 398-413. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/00221309.2019.1690973 [Accessed 10th January 2022].