If you ask college men, they’ll say that it’s more unethical to use steroids to boost athletic performance than it is to take prescription stimulants to get better grades, according to new survey of Penn State freshmen. Students who had themselves used stimulants like Adderall or Ritalin to gain an academic edge were more likely to consider such drug misuse as acceptable.
For the study, researchers led by psychologist Tonya Dodge of George Washington University questioned 1,200 male college freshmen about their views on two hypothetical scenarios in which a student misuses a drug to enhance performance. (Only men were included in the study, since they are much more likely than women to use drugs in this way.)
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One vignette involved “Bill,” a college sprinter who felt he didn’t have enough time to train adequately for a championship meet in a few weeks. He asks a steroid-using friend for the drugs, performs better than expected and goes on to win the championship race.
The scenario involved “Jeff,” a similarly time-pressed student who is worried that his grades are low and has trouble focusing on studying for midterms. He asks his friend, who has a prescription for Adderall — an ADHD medication that improves focus — for a few pills. Jeff ends up getting higher grades on his midterms than he expected.
Participants in the study were far more likely to label Bill as a cheater than Jeff. Most said they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that Bill’s use of steroids was cheating, but did not think it appropriate to characterize Jeff’s drug use the same way. The more times they themselves had used stimulants to study, the less likely they were to see Jeff’s actions as unethical.
About 8% of the study participants reported nonmedical use of a stimulant in the month prior to the survey, compared with fewer than 1% who had taken steroids.
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You might think that students would be more concerned about cheating for good grades — an outcome that can directly affect their future, in a way that sports performance usually does not — but their reasoning is probably more subtle. Sport is a zero-sum game: that is, the winner’s success necessitates everyone else’s failure. Academic performance, on the other hand, is non-zero-sum; my good grades don’t preclude your success, at least not as directly.
The authors say that’s why performance enhancement in sport is seen as more unethical than the same behavior in school:
[T]he athlete has won at the expense of another athlete and may have reached a level of performance he would not have reached otherwise. However, the individual in the academic domain succeeds with relatively no cost to another. Even if the level of performance was one he would not have reached without the substance, it does not come at the expense of another.
Further, the researchers had predicted that because in athletics people must outperform so many other competitors to succeed, while in academics many people can simultaneously do well, the surveyed students would regard steroid use as more necessary to winning in sports than stimulant use was to academic achievement. But the opposite turned out to be true.
The students said they thought the use of stimulants was more necessary for Jeff’s high midterm grades than steroid use was for Bill’s victory. This may be due to the belief that intelligence is much more fixed than athleticism — that is, drugs used for cognitive enhancement make up for a deficiency that can’t be addressed by effort, whereas in sports, more training could work equally well. “One possibility is that individuals believe intelligence, which would be largely responsible for academic success, is less malleable than athletic ability,” the authors write.
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The implications of the findings are twofold, according to the study. First, interventions that teach students that using drugs to enhance academic performance is dishonest and unethical might lead to reductions in such misuse. Second, teaching that intelligence can respond to practice just as muscles do — an idea increasingly supported by research — could also help.
There’s a third implication we may want to consider, however. If a cognitive-enhancement drug could be approved to boost performance safely and was made available to all who wanted it, why should its use be seen as cheating? A drug that increases human cognitive performance — allows students to learn more, doctors to find cures faster and engineers to design better technology — and does not hurt others wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.
The study was published in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors.
Maia Szalavitz is a health writer for TIME.com. Find her on Twitter at @maiasz. You can also continue the discussion on TIME Healthland‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIMEHealthland.