Doping in Academia: "Should we be allowing cognitive enhancers before the SAT?"

Mar 31 2009 Published by under Doping, Neuropharmacology, Public Health


BikeMonkey GuestPost
I had comments in the past on the topic of cognitive performance doping. You know, taking drugs to artificially improve how smart you are so as to gain a competitive advantage over your non-drug-taking peers. Doping. Just like sports doping. My prior comments on the WP blog were in these two posts.
Doping is A-Okay According to Nature.
November 14, 2007

Ha. Of course this is a considerable misrepresentation and minimization. Caffeine (prescribed by BM for "falling asleep in 4pm seminars") and nicotine (ditto by a colleague) are also good for focusing of attention, improving memory and other GoodThings for complex brain function. Considerably more than 15% of students and "anecdotes" of "postdocs and academics" use these cognitive enhancers I can tell you. Sucks that they are addictive drugs, but them's the breaks. I mean, we gotta function in our jobs, right?
But let's get right down to the point in the Nature editorial, eh? Wouldn't you become addicted to crack if it would cure "tumor development"? I mean surely if Nature believes a little chronic Ritalin (methylphenidate) is called for just for "memoriz(ing) a postulated signalling pathway" relevant to cancer they can get behind addiction for a cure, right?

Performance Doping in Academia, Take 2
December 19, 2007

The original commentary then asks, in essence if it is "cheating" for otherwise normal people to use cognitive enhancers. The central consideration is that we've already crossed that Rubicon. Caffeine and nicotine being the primary examples. It is completely acceptable, particularly in the case of caffeine, to brag on use of this stimulant to confer unnatural and unfair advantage over the competition in academic performance. From undergrad, to grad to professordom. Any argument that tries to overlook or minimize this reality is completely bogus. "I wrote my last grant on Modafinil", "I wrote my last grant at the local coffeeshop" and "I wrote my last grant on Adderall" should have precisely the same ethical implications. The legal status, common acceptance, route of administration of the compound, specificity of the compound, etc have nothing to do with the ethical question of "cheating" by taking a cognitive enhancing compound.

This story just won't go away. Today's offering is from a PBS broadcast on smart drugs on a program called These Days.


Guests include

* George Koob, professor in the Department of Neuropharmacology at The Scripps Research Institute.

TBG: "There's nothing in our rules or code of conduct that says you can't take cognitive enhancers"
GK: "...if these drugs are going to be used as cognitive enhancers than there needs to be some rules about who will prescribe them....what about the SAT? "
Caller "Dakota": "...from my experience being college student...Adderall and Ritalin is used everywhere...I kinda see Adderall as the steroids of college...I feel like I'm at an unfair disadvantage to not use these superhuman study drugs"
If you are interested, here's some additional blog commentary from the prior go-round:

25 responses so far

  • Dave says:

    The SAT is supposed to predict success in college. So if one plans on using cognitive enhancers through college, it would be appropriate to also use them for the SAT. In fact, SAT administrators would be goofing up the predictive ability of their tests to not insist on it.
    The whole cognitive enhancers debate is silly. If you want to start regulating cognitive enhancers, you will need to regulate caffeine and nicotine -- two of the most effective (and widely used) cognitive enhancers known.
    And then you will need to start regulating REM sleep and education and age and everything else that might give someone an 'unfair' cognitive advantage.

  • DuWayne says:

    This is even a fucking question? Like there are actually people out there who don't believe that it's "fair" for me to be allowed to take my fucking Ritalin on test days?
    I wonder how they feel about the Welbutrin.

  • The SAT is supposed to predict success in college.
    Then ETS should hand out bong hits and beer funnels before they administer the test!

  • Hauteless says:

    I knew a dude in med school who took beta blockers before every exam. He passed med school and finished residency. Actually, he passed the boards. I'm guessing he popped a few beta blockers before being board certified. Now, is that a real cognitive enhancer or just some pill-popping dude's way of calming his nerves? How is anyone going to regulate shit like that? Caffeine has an attention/memory-enhancing effect. Are we going to ban people from Starbucks?

  • leigh says:

    i have yet to see anything convincingly demonstrating that the rx stimulants enhance memory consolidation and recall. you can probably pay attention to what you're doing a little more, sure. but if you don't remember what you studied, what real improvement is there in the first place?
    CPP, i was severely hung over when i took mine, that's gotta count for something.

  • Scrabcake says:

    I knew a lot of kids in university who would take ritalin so they could crank out a paper the night before it was due. It pretty much acted like speed for them, and it was almost never from their own prescription.
    It's cheating. Whether or not these kids crank out a crap paper because they're not as clever as the ritalin made them think they were is beside the point. The ends do not matter. What does matter is the intent, and these kids intended to have their cake and eat it too by partying all weekend and then staying up all night on drugs to do a paper that most kids had to actually spend time on. They intended to get an edge on students who are actually talented and devoted to their studies. The intent, in other words, is to cheat. When a kid goes to a coffee stand before a test, they aren't intending to use daddy's money and blackmarket connections to give themselves an edge up on everyone else. That's the difference. It's not the ends, but the intent that make doing Ritalin or Adderal before a paper or a test "cheating."

  • Scrabcake says:

    The point of the above is, in short:
    Coffee + cigs aren't cheating. You don't do them to give yourself an edge.
    Adderal = Cheating. You might fire out gibberish for that paper and get an F anyway, but you were intending to take a short cut that most kids wouldn't or don't have the resources to take. Therefore, it's cheating.

  • Anonymous says:

    in athletics, drugs can and do make a big difference so on that front it is an unfair advantage. but in academics - school and professional - I don't think they make a big difference because drugs cannot make a stupid person intelligent. Drugs can't give you knowledge or skills you didn't already have to begin with. So no, I don't think it is cheating. Drugs may allow you to stay up all night but if you're not that intelligent or didn't do your homework to begin with, you will still crank out a crappy paper/grant (just that it takes you less time to do so).

  • Dr. Feelgood says:

    Taking ritalin is not going to make you understand that 2+2=4 if you dont understand that already. Since the SAT is a college preparedness test, it is simply measuring your academic skills. I dont think taking something that will increase your attentional capacity would make you choose answer C over answer D if you dont understand the question in the first place. Some people are more distracted in test situations and it may help them. If you are overly anxious during tests, shouldnt you be allowed to take an anxiolytic? These things only help you focus on the task at hand. Its not like they are giving you drug that inserts a dictionary and a thesaurus into your head. Who fucking cares anyhoo?
    Doc F

  • DuWayne says:

    Scrabcake -
    What does matter is the intent, and these kids intended to have their cake and eat it too by partying all weekend and then staying up all night on drugs to do a paper that most kids had to actually spend time on.
    So is it cheating if they use massive quantities of caffeine to stay awake, instead of mehtylphenidate or dextramphetamine?
    Or is it cheating when I sit down and crank out an eleven page paper in about five hours of actual writing time - not in the middle of the night, last minute and certainly not because I was out partying? Something I simply can't do if I'm not taking my Ritalin. Not because I'm incapable of the writing, rather because I have one hell of a time staying focused on what I am supposed to be writing, instead of the tangents my brain wants me to go with. And that problem isn't going to be solved by my spending as much actual writing time as anyone else, or even more.
    Would it suddenly become cheating if I did wait until the last minute? Would it be cheating if, instead of using stimulant therapy, coupled with my mood stabilizer and anti-hypertensive, I was smoking pot, like I used to do for similar effect? Because while it wasn't nearly as effective as the drugs I'm taking now, it did help - and I also have to admit, that I fucking loved to get stoned.
    Of course my pleasure at getting ripped was largely due to the fact that it slowed the constant barrage of fucking ideas that I am baseline hammered with every second of every damned day.
    Like others have pointed out, no amount of stimulant is going to make you smarter or tell you the answer. The kids who decide to write that paper at the last minute, in the middle of the night, are certainly not going to write a better paper because of it. A few of the cleverer ones might write a pretty damned good paper anyways - but it is unlikely they will write as good a paper as they would have, had they put in more effort. Their grades will reflect their effort - who the fuck cares if they were out drugging and fucking all weekend, instead of writing their damned paper?
    I take the drugs I do, because it is unlikely that I could get through school without them. The thing is, without the drugs, I am hella lot smarter than the average bear, but I can't focus well enough to function. The irony is, that the way the drugs "enhance" my performance, is by making me just a bit duller.

  • becca says:

    "It's not the ends, but the intent that make doing Ritalin or Adderal before a paper or a test "cheating."" I simply don't buy that the intent of using Ritalin is always to get an edge... nor that the intent of using coffee never is to get an edge.
    Moreover, by your logic, if everyone is using a particular test aid, then the intent cannot be to 'get a leg up' on everyone else... and thus it cannot be cheating. Regardless of whether the aid is Ritalin or plagarism- "everybody's doing it" is now a valid excuse.
    "Some people are more distracted in test situations and it may help them."
    If what the SAT tests has nothing to do with how you deal with anxiety provoking test situations why on earth is it time-pressured? The questions on the SAT (particularly the math side) simply aren't that hard. The only thing that adds a challenge is the time pressure. So anything that helps you think faster is an aid. That includes caffeine and methamphetamine.
    Personally, I think the solution is for ETS to pay for everyone to have speed before hand. The fees are expensive enough to cover it.
    Either that, or rewrite the test so it covers actual knowledge. But that would mean, you know, utterly abandoning this ridiculous pretense that it's an aptitude test. Which ETS doesn't want to do. Because then they're just the ACT without science.

  • bob says:

    For me the main concern are the possible side effects. I feel similarly about doping in sports. It it were completely safe, I would say go for it. In cycling, advances in technology make bikes lighter and more aerodynamic. In research, expensive technology that's not available to everyone makes some people more productive.
    It's not about fairness, or access for all. It's about safety and possible side effects. If possible side effects are worth it, I say go for it. (But beware people trying to skew your view of the side effects through marketing etc.)

  • Just a point of clarification: I'm not sure that anyone argues that it is "unfair" for someone with a legitimate diagnosis of ADHD and a legitimate rx for Adderall/Ritalin/whathaveyou to be medicated while taking exams etc.
    However, these drugs do have an effect on people who DON'T have a legit condition/prescription. Tons of college students (who do not have ADD/ADHD) use these drugs to increase their focus, concentration, and ability to apply these things for an extended period of time (i.e., pull an effective all-nighter).
    The question is: Does the self-medicating with academic enhancing drugs by students who DO NOT NEED THEM, constitute an unfair advantage as compared to students who a) do not need the drugs to treat a legit condition and do not self-medicate, and/or b) use their legit rx for these drugs to treat a legit condition which ideally brings them to the same standard of performance as student in category a?

  • DSKS says:

    I haven't thought about it thoroughly, but I get the feeling that the incentive to seek these sorts of means to excel within the education system might in part be ameliorated by reforming the prevailing pre-college pedagogy. It's an old drum, and I imagine many are bored of hearing it bang, but it seems that this issue is yet another symptom of how we set about teaching and assessing our kids.
    I mean, isn't it a pretty shocking indictment of the current education system that we honestly believe that popping some go-go pills will give students a considerable advantage? Surely that tells us there's something wrong with the system rather than the kids within it?
    Actually, wasn't the recent push towards reforming teaching standards within medical schools in part stimulated by a desire to attenuate depression, anxiety, drug-dependency problems within the student population?

  • I am a smart girl. So were a number of the other X engineers with whom I went to undergrad. Understanding the information and knowing how to do the problems on exams was not always a problem; doing it all quickly and efficiently WAS.
    I am so glad that I am not/was not aware of any of this kind of drug abuse by my classmates when I was in undergrad, because it was such a competitive environment that I know I would have felt pressured. Maybe in certain settings, taking these drugs wouldn't matter, but it would have mattered for me and the other people taking those engineering exams. I shudder just thinking about it. And I don't think it's right at all.

  • JLK says:

    Okay, here's my take on this. I took the SAT, the GRE, finished undergrad at the top of my class, and NEVER used anything to do so. Yes, I drink coffee. Yes, I smoke cigarettes. Always have. Didn't even take a smoke break during the GRE because I just wanted to get the damn thing over with.
    If these kids who have no legitimate reason for taking these drugs are using them to get through college and standardized tests, they haven't got a prayer of making it in the real world without ending up in rehab. I say, fuck 'em. No one in the world (I'm willing to bet) has ever written an A paper on adderol when they couldn't have written it without.
    If they go on to a career in business, they're likely to end up with a coke habit. If they go onto grad school research, no drug (except maybe LSD lol) is going to give them ideas and methods for research that will give them an advantage.
    Now if I found out that some douchebag kid got a grad school slot over me because of higher ritalin-infused GRE scores, hell yes I am going to be pissed. Especially since that god-forsaken test had ridiculous time limits. But unless and until someone can prove to me through scientific inquiry that taking these drugs can make an average joe score significantly higher, my sentiment remains the same. Fuck 'em.
    An interesting psychological side note - the best results come from matching condition at study to condition at test. So if you're drunk while studying and drunk while taking the test, you'll do significantly better than someone who was drunk at study and sober at test or vice versa. You'd have to be high as a kite both while studying and while taking the test. Eventually, you'd have to be high as a kite all. the. time.
    And I find it very hard to believe that wouldn't eventually translate into a huge disadvantage for the dopers.

  • The Taze says:

    JLK, your carefully worded sentiment makes me realize two things. Indeed you must have graduated at the top of your class and fuck those other chemically imbalanced assholes who dare to take *your* spot. What a sense of entitlement! I hope when you go to grad school you are humbled and become more mature to be a more caring person. Just because you do not need Ritalin to get through a normal day (or a standardized test) doesn't mean you are superior.

  • antipodean says:

    Is it cheating if I take modafinil to stay awake at a medical conference that's half way around the world from my normal time zone after taking a 30 hour trip in economy class to get there?

  • Curt Fischer says:

    This thread is very interesting. Most of the commenters who consider adderall or ritalin use "cheating" are basically just punting on the difficult questions and letting doctors (MDs) decide everything.
    In my opinion, that is not very helpful. The very nature of the label "ADHD" is unhelpful in many ways. Personality traits fall along continua, and though psychiatrists may try as they might to persuade me otherwise, I do not believe there are bright-line criteria that can reliably differentiate someone with mild ADHD from someone who is "merely" non-pathologically distractable and impatient.
    Additionally, most MDs work not out of a sense of scholarly duty or curiosity, but out of their own commercial interests. In most cases, I doubt it is worth their time to continually say "no" to patients who want Ritalin prescriptions. So the people who "need" cognition-enhancing drugs might just be the people who are the most persistent with their doctors.
    Lastly, at the graduate, post-graduate, and professorial levels, one's activities at school are supposed to benefit society broadly, not just serve as a means to getting some kind of paper credential. If we assume that is true, what is the "cheating"? Is it bad if the "cheaters" produce more benefits for society than they otherwise would have?
    Letting MDs decide who "needs" drugs like ritalin effectively cedes control over the productivity of the research enterprise to prescribing physicians.
    Researchers, in my view, should be able to decide if they want these drugs. Maybe many of the drugs are harmful and life-destroying. I doubt many researchers would take those types, at least for long. But maybe they're not! How can we know without an experiment? And how can we experiment when these drugs are Schedule I substances controlled not by America's scientists, but by America's MDs?

  • bikemonkey says:

    If we assume that is true, what is the "cheating"? Is it bad if the "cheaters" produce more benefits for society than they otherwise would have?
    Exactly my point in response to the first Nature bomb on this topic. They were lauding the benefits of improved scientific performance. In a way that led to only one possible interpretation. The ethical scientist should be willing to become addicted to crack if it would serve a public good. To quote the editorial:
    Far from cheating on themselves or others, they would be delivering a higher return on their investment of effort, and indeed on society's investment in them. We all benefit.

  • Curt Fischer says:

    They were lauding the benefits of improved scientific performance. In a way that led to only one possible interpretation. The ethical scientist should be willing to become addicted to crack if it would serve a public good.
    Huh? Where do you get "one possible interpretation"? By that logic the ethical scientist should be willing to work longer hours instead of exercising - it would deliver higher returns on society's investment in them. Doesn't make sense.
    Let's suppose that we magically learned that long-term use of these drugs had absolutely no negative health benefits. Maybe then I can understand your argument. But in the absence of such research, I don't see how ethics dictates whether scientists should take the drugs. Whether to bear the uncertain risk associated with using these drugs is a personal decision. Just like working late one night instead of going to the gym.

  • bikemonkey says:

    Whether to bear the uncertain risk associated with using these drugs is a personal decision.
    Why do we have laws that regulate working conditions in any industry then? Why is the work week generally limited to 40 hrs? Why a minimum wage? Why occupational health and safety provisions?
    Why is it not just the personal decision of any worker whether he/she chooses to work in a given environment for a given wage*?
    The editorial in Nature was (at least implicitly) advancing the idea that scientists had some moral obligation to the societies they serve to do whatever they can, at any personal cost, to learn stuff.
    *and yes we might very well consider why the scientific "trainee" workforce is exploited to a degree that is similar to late 18th Century / early 19th C factory and farm labor...

  • becca says:

    "Researchers, in my view, should be able to decide if they want these drugs. Maybe many of the drugs are harmful and life-destroying. I doubt many researchers would take those types, at least for long. But maybe they're not! How can we know without an experiment?"
    "*and yes we might very well consider why the scientific "trainee" workforce is exploited to a degree that is similar to late 18th Century / early 19th C factory and farm labor..."
    That's the perfect solution! We'll just burn up a generation of the surplus phd students/postdocs by trying out all the possible drugs/drug combinations. Most of them'll be toxic, which means less competition for grants. But if there are any particularly good combinations, we'll be able to boost scientific productivity enormously!

  • JLK says:

    @The Taze - it is not about being immature or uncaring. If I were a professional baseball player batting a .300 average without the use of steroids, and I was being compared to other .300 avg players who ARE using steroids, by all accounts and measures I WOULD be the superior player. And I would have a right to be pissed, because it isn't fair. My options then become start to take steroids to find out the extent of my "talent" or be banished to mediocrity in pay and status because of my unwillingness to cheat.
    But on the other hand, if those steroids were not in fact improving the stats of these other players - if the people batting .300 with would have been doing so without, then it's irrelevant. And at that point I say, do what you will with your own body to your own detriment. In other words, fuck 'em.
    I don't think that's immaturity or a sign of being uncaring. I think it's respecting people's choices as long as it doesn't infringe upon my own.

Leave a Reply