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Bioethics Forum Essay

Why College Students Use Cognitive Enhancers: It’s Not Only about Grades

As the school year winds down, it’s safe to assume that many college students used stimulants such as Ritalin and Adderall to get through finals. While the students may have been motivated to improve their odds of getting good grades, a new study suggests that students’ reasons for taking stimulants aren’t so blatantly opportunistic.

The students in the study said that they used stimulants for three purposes: to help with studying, to avoid procrastination, and to make studying more pleasurable. “What seems to be enhanced is not so much performance or results as it is the experience of studying and thus the self-image as successful and productive students,” the researchers conclude.While the students were well aware that taking cognitive enhancers was morally questionable, they made the case that it was morally acceptable to take stimulants as a “work tool” to help with studying.

Were the students simply rationalizing their behavior? Maybe. But what was interesting about the study is that it gave them the chance to wrestle with their ethical concerns. It consisted of 19 undergraduates, graduate students, and recent graduates in New York City who had either used stimulants for enhancement purposes or had close friends who did. Though the study was small, it involved several in-depth ethnographic interviews with each student.

At first, the students emphasized the benefit of stimulants for improving focus and alertness. In this regard, many students considered stimulants “as a good work tool comparable to strong coffee or fast computers,” the researchers wrote. “It also suggests that students do not feel there is anything morally wrong with using this tool to help them do their work.”

After several conversations, the students said that stimulants also enhanced their experience of studying – making it easier for them to face the work and making the work less forbidding and even more enjoyable. These effects were ethically ambiguous to them.

Many talked about feeling overwhelmed at exam time, which in turn lowered their self-confidence and made them procrastinate. Ben, a graduate student, said that Adderall eliminated that fear and gave him the “confidence that the work will get done.”

Harrison, another graduate student who used stimulants to help overcome self-doubt and procrastination, told the researchers that “that sounds kind of bad.” But he also emphasized the benefits he experienced: being able to “engage in a task and feel good” and not be “disrupted by what your misery or insecurity might do to interfere with completing the task.”

Not all students took stimulants to eliminate unpleasant feelings. Some suggested that studying was fairly enjoyable to them and they wanted to make it even more so. But the students drew a sharp distinction between taking stimulants to feel good while studying and using recreational drugs such as marijuana simply to feel good. “The setting in which they use stimulants is what counts,” the researchers wrote, “and using them for studying is morally acceptable while using them for recreation is not.”

The researchers explored that paradox. “Enhancing the experience of studying encompasses ambiguity,” they wrote. “Sitting in the library at night, surrounded by other working students, confirms to themselves and others that they are successful and valuable beings doing the right thing. However, making studying fun can also be understood as the opposite . . . . We argue that both of these dynamics are going on simultaneously. Students are trying to live up to their own and others’ expectations, while at the same time trying to have a good time.”

The nuanced findings of this study come at a time that President Obama’s bioethics commission has recommend a closer examination of the risks, benefits, and ethical issues concerning the use of cognitive enhancers. The key takeaway from the study is that college students who use stimulants as cognitive enhancers don’t do so only or even mainly to get As. But the students wonder if their seemingly less crass motives are also morally wrong.

Susan Gilbert is the public affairs and communications manager of The Hastings Center and editor ofBioethics Forum.

Posted by Laura Haupt at 06/03/2015 09:51:02 AM |

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