Are Ritalin-Taking Students Cheaters?

When athletes are exposed as dopers, we heap scorn and doubt on their accomplishments. What about college students? An estimated 25 percent of them now illegally use concentration- and memory-boosting drugs to help them make the grade. One researcher wonders if academics are willing to subject themselves to the same anti-doping circus now dogging sports. Future students could be made to submit to urine tests before their final exams. What about their professors, who are turning to smart-pills as well? Depends on whether or not you think cognitive enhancement drugs are a cheat for academics. [%comments]

science minded

Cheating is cheating no matter which way you look at it.

PS- thank you to Dubner and Levitt. I figured out the hidden side of economics and you both deserve some of the credit reference-- which you will get.

Goldstein, 2009


So if the point of athletics is to perform at your upper physical limit and doping to exceed those limits is wrong, then I guess since the point of academics is to perform at the upper cognitive limit then "doping" to exceed those limits would be wrong too. But I have a feeling we as a society are going to be more willing to forgive drug use that helps you get through college.


I think the main difference between athletes and academics taking performance-enhancing drugs is that the athletes are doing something that has no purpose other than being a spectacle, in other words it is its own purpose. Academics, on the other hand, are thought (at least by some--as an academic myself I'm not so sure about this) to be striving toward some higher goal, and thus all other things being equal it might be more acceptable for the academics to engage in this than the athletes.


No, I not think it is cheating if you have a legal prescription for it. However, I know several individuals who take it illegally and use it to cram for test, stay up late and play video games, and drink more.

A. Patel

It is not cheating unless the class is graded on a curve (or if it is Indian (British?) style rank that students get based on their grades.

Couple of unrelated points:
The knowledge acquired with drugs is probably more permanent than physique acquired through drugs. And the attention/memory drugs are probably not as harsh on the body.


It seems to me that the moral outrage over doping is (or should be) that sports are, in a sense, just for fun. Winning in sports brings personal accolades, but not much more. "Winning" in science brings advancements for humanity. Would you shun someone who discovers the cure for cancer because he or she doped? I wouldn't.


I think the purpose of college is not to do better than your peers, but to demonstrate accumulation of skills and knowledge. So who cares how they do it, right?
It doesn't hurt Student A for Student B to be studying hopped up on Adderall.
This doesn't hold true for professors that curve their grades to get a perfect distribution, though. So it does hurt the non-drug taking students after all. Hmmm??


We regularly permit athletes to use performance-enhancing substances. People in archery and riflery are permitted to use glasses; runners are permitted to use shoes; swimmers are permitted to use those body-molding suits; etc.

People express concern about drugs not because they are performance-enhancing. People express concerns about drugs that are HARMFUL, especially because there's a concern that athletes will feel compelled to use the harmful substances simply to compete with other athletes that do.

I don't know anything about Ritilin except that some people find that it enhances their productivity. Other people use caffeine. Or yoga. Or meditation and prayer. Or orgasms. Whatever. Unless there's some evidence that any of these strategies are harmful – and may therefore induce third parties to engage in the same harmful conduct for competitive advantage – I'm not seeing the problem here.



I would never consider taking steroids to win an athletic event, but if there was anything (ANYTHING!) I could do to increase my ability to learn, I'd do it.

A. Patel

To Paul and James,
Generally education and sports are both employed for selfish purposes (to get a job and make money). Most of the educated people do not contribute anything meaningful to the society, same as most athletes. No?


A. Patel -
Would students taking drugs cause them to contribute less to society? I don't think so. It might frustrate their peers who do not take drugs, since their contributions would be less significant in comparison, but it would hardly harm society as a whole. In any case, regardless of motive, and regardless of what "most of the educated people" do, it is mostly educated people who contribute to society (at least in terms of scientific advancement, which is what I was talking about).


In sports, you agree to be subject to arbitrary rules and referees.

I rejected colleges' general in-loco-parentis mindset as an undergrad, and on more than one occasion threw a consumerist fit about the imposition of arbitrary rules (mostly with respect to campus housing policies; once because a professor was barely phoning it in; never because of grades or evaluation), because I was paying full fare out of personal funds, and see no reason why individuals on loans should not have this right either.

marty isaac

Really terrific question. Why are performance enhancing drugs "wrong" anyway? Is it any more wrong than a healthy diet? I think part of the argument is related to a safety aspect (sports figures taking unsafe drugs may lead to unsafe behavior for a the population that models themsevles after them). In this regard, Ritalin is likely equally wrong.

The other piece that makes it wrong is that the rules specifically declare them to be so (just as NASCAR regulates specific elements of cars to have a "fair" race, so too do most professional sports teams at this point).

Frankly, if not for the safety of those that model themselves after these athletes and for the players themselves -- i think it would be kind of cool to have a super NFL league where everything goes -- Again, safety prohibits this.

This whole topic reminds me of Olympic hockey back in the day when they used to try to stop professionals from playing. Ultimately, because what was considered a professional was increasingly murky, the rule was abolished. If not for safety, I bet the rule on drugs would ultimately be abolished here as well.


Phil Janeteas

I went the the library one morning at 4 am to study for a test I had at 7:30 am. Behind me was a kid, who had been up all night studying, shaking his bottle of adderall. Yes, it is very much cheating. It is not a level playing field if one uses drugs to keep their body from sleeping so they have more time to study.

Mike Browning

The probles with all known cognitive enhancers is that they all have what id known as the inverted "U" effect. What this means is that there is a very small range in the dose of the drug that is helpful and that below and above that dose the drug actually impairs cognitive performance. Also as you use the drug e.g. caffeine, the dose where it works changes. So these cognitive enhancers may be much ado about nothing.



I'd just like to point out that ADD drugs are stimulants people (Strattera being the exception), and unless your brain chemistry is broken like mine is, they don't HELP you. Rather the opposite if your goal is calm and focused.


It's not cheating unless it is proscribed by the rules of their academic institution. It is illegal, though, unless they have a prescription. That is not to say that it is immoral.

B. Adu

Is it any worse than other drugs such as anti-depressants and the like, is taking them cheating too?

science minded

PS. My husband is not an academic, but an impressionist artist/painter. and without his' continued support and all the dinner table converstions that we have had , I know that this book would never have reached this point of "almost done." So who said, patiene is a virtue?


The problem with doping in the academic context is the same as (the only, in my mind) problem with doping in sports: non-doping individuals are disadvantaged. By not taking medication for ADD or narcolepsy, the non-doping students perform less well and lose out on grades, and thus career opportunities/honors/etc. Given that doping in this context frequently involves abuse of drugs, that gives students the choice of either potentially damaging their bodies and running legal risks or falling behind their peers. It could be true that we should reward risk takers who dope to achieve better results, but I'm not sure that's an optimal outcome.

Additionally, lets not go with this false superiority of students to athletes. Saying that doping in sports is different because athletes aren't engaging in "real" work conveniently overlooks that many students go into fields like finance and law that aren't any more "real" in their beneficial output than entertainment.