Bioethics Blogs

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 simulants isn’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.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.