Performance-Enhancing Drugs for Sports and for School: What’s More Unethical?

Is it ethical to use cognitive-enhancing drugs to help with school performance?

Photo by China Photos/Getty Images

Taking performance-enhancing drugs is considered poor ethical form in both competitive sports and in academia. But how do the two scenarios compare ethically? Is one worse than the other?

A new study called “Judging Cheaters: Is Substance Misuse Viewed Similarly in the Athletic and Academic Domains?” tried determine how one population feels about the relative ethics.

About 1,200 male students, all in their freshman year at Penn State University. were presented with two scenarios: one in which an athlete takes anabolic steroids to improve his performance at a track meet and one in which a student takes a prescription stimulant like Adderall to improve his performance on a test. The results show that the surveyed students think that using athletes using steroids is less ethically sound than taking a stimulant to do better in school.

As the researchers note, the common perception is that sports are a zero-sum game: There is a winner and a loser. By contrast, doing well on a test or in a course doesn’t usually take away from another student, grading on the curve notwithstanding. Furthermore, the surveyed students were much more likely to have used prescription stimulants in the last year (about 8 percent) than to have used anabolic steroids at any point in their lives (less than 1 percent). Students who had used stimulants without a prescription or who had played sports were more likely to say that performance-enhancing drugs for sports were worse than those for academic purposes.   

Penn State, of course, is famous for taking sports very seriously—too seriously (and I say that as an alum). So as a next step, it would be interesting to see how students at a highly academically competitive school without a major sports program would feel. In a high-pressure academic environment, are students even more comfortable taking prescription stimulants, or are they particularly likely to consider off-label use of Ritalin unethical?