Cognitive Enhancement Is Okay, But Wait Until You Graduate

Context and metaphors influence people's attitudes towards cognitive enhancement

Posted Jul 01, 2019

Erin C Conrad
Source: Erin C Conrad

This post was co-authored by Erin C. Conrad, M.D. and Stacey Humphries, Ph.D.

Paul Erdős is one of the most successful mathematicians in history. With more than 1,000 papers to his name, his contributions to number theory, combinatorics, and probability are so central to mathematics that mathematicians today define their own position in the field by an "Erdős number", which describes their collaborative distance from Erdős. While much of his success was based on intellectual prowess, he had a pharmaceutical helper. As described in his biography, Erdős used amphetamines so frequently, in fact, that his friends worried. One friend bet $500 that he couldn’t quit amphetamines for a month. Erdős collected the $500 but told his friend “I didn't get any work done... You've set mathematics back a month.”

While Erdős may be one of the most famous people to use stimulants to enhance cognition, he is not the only one by far. Students, athletes, and workers increasingly use cognitive enhancers to improve performance. Examples of cognitive enhancement–also referred to as cosmetic neurology–range from students using stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin to cram for a test, to elderly adults taking over-the-counter ginkgo biloba as a memory boost, to tech innovators micro-dosing LSD to expand their minds. An estimated 5% - 40% of students, 9% of surgeons, 19% of economists, and 28% of poker players say they have used illegal or prescription drugs for enhancement.

Opinions vary on this practice. Most surveys query students, not the broader public. Given the use of enhancement by people at work, we wished to learn if the public feels differently about cognitive enhancement use by workers compared to students and athletes.

We asked 3,700 online participants to envision one of three scenarios: a student using a cognitive enhancement to study, an athlete to train, or an employee at work. We asked people if they thought it was ok to use cognitive enhancement in that scenario and whether they would use it themselves. We also used two different metaphors to describe cognitive enhancement, introducing them as either “fuel” or “steroids” for the brain.

People were more accepting of cognitive enhancement in the workplace compared to either school or sports. They were also accepting of other people using cognitive enhancement even if they themselves would not take them.

Stacey Humphries
People find cognitive enhancement more acceptable when used by employees than either students or athletes.
Source: Stacey Humphries

We expected opposition to the use of enhancement by athletes given how doping scandals plague professional sports. We were surprised that people also preferred enhancement at work to enhancement in school. Could this difference be explained by competition? Perhaps cognitive enhancement amounts to cheating when used in competition, and school may be considered a more competitive environment than the workplace. When we then asked people to imagine a highly competitive workplace or a collaborative one, people accepted cognitive enhancement equally. 

So, if the level of competition doesn’t matter, why would it be worse to use cognitive enhancement at school than at work? We don’t know. Perhaps people are considering the benefit to society: When a student takes a pill to ace a test, they only help themselves. But as Paul Erdős might say, when workers are enhanced, we all benefit.

We also found that people preferred cognitive enhancement when described as “fuel” than when described as “steroids” for the brain, implying that metaphorical framing changed opinion.

Stacey Humphries
Metaphor influences opinions about cognitive enhancement (above), but not opinions about one’s own use (below)
Source: Stacey Humphries

Politicians, journalists, and bloggers often take great rhetorical latitude when discussing policy, and our findings suggest that framing alone can shift people’s minds. Of note, our choice of metaphor only changed people’s opinions regarding others’ use of cognitive enhancement, but not their own. Perhaps opinions about others’ activities are malleable, but decisions about how we behave ourselves are harder to change.

What can policymakers and the public take away from our study? First, policies regulating the use of enhancement should consider the context of their use: work, study, or play. Second, people’s opinions about their own personal practice do not generalize to their opinion about what others should do. Finally, the language we use can shape opinion. Metaphors matter.


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