I’ve always found it interesting to consider what exactly is fairness and in what situations it counts.  Life is inherently unfair itself . . . I’m reminded of the quip you hear in the bodybuilding world that if you want to be a winner on stage, you should have “chosen better parents,” given how important genetics are to competing at the top level.   At the same time, many of the competitions and games in life require rules to try to make them fair.

Case in point:  athletic competition.  From the Olympics to amateur tournaments, most people will at least pay lip service to the idea that it should be a level playing field.  In fact, for many years, even caffeine levels were restricted by the WHO to try to maintain that.  They did relent in 2004 though, no doubt to the great relief of coffee drinkers there [1]Patrick Diel, “Caffeine and Doping—What Have We Learned since 2004,” Nutrients 12, no. 8 (July 22, 2020), https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082167.  More recently, there have been the ongoing controversies in the professional sports world of steroid use and other PED’s like prohormones and SARMs.  However effective/ineffective restrictions may be for athletes, they’re at least expected to face each other on equal terms.

Racing in water...these athletes expect a fair competition

Racing in water…these athletes expect a fair competition

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

How about in finding financial success in the business world, however?  Yet again life bestows individual advantages and disadvantages.  Having well-off parents who can invest in your business, associating with wealthy friends of the family, and other advantages that scientists are still studying give some people a massive leg up.  At the same time, there’s no regulatory body requiring all adults to work from the same starting point.  I’m sure I don’t need to explain why that’d be ludicrous, of course.  It’s just interesting to compare against areas where people do expect even odds . . . and it’s directly relevant to the rising interest in nootropics in the business world.

An interesting study recently tested that very perception.  They sent out a survey to a total of 3,727 US participants and asked them if it was acceptable for a certain group of people to give themselves cognitive boosts.  The trick is in the wording—they used the following polarizing terms to see if their usage manipulated the answers:

  • The term used for the cognitive boosts: some were told the users are using “fuel” and others “steroids.”
  • The word used for the group of people who would be taking these cognitive enhancers: they were either “athletes,” “students,” or “employees.”

They had three boilerplate surveys, where they then played mad libs with these words.  For example, one survey said, “Cognitive enhancing pills are [fuel/steroids] for the brain” and then paired that sentence with “[Athletes/Students/Employees] sometimes take these pills while …” and finished it with something job-specific, like students “studying” and employees “doing their jobs.”

These words carry strong connotations.  The public is already sensitized to “athletes” taking “steroids” as being unfair, so, as I’m sure surprises no one, the people who got that pairing generally reported cognitive enhancers as a bad idea.  What’s interesting though is just how big the gap is. 

The survey used the Likert scale, which is what I’m sure you’ve filled out before, where it asks if you strongly agree, disagree, strongly disagree, etc.  Convert that to a score, and it’s pretty much split down the middle as to whether or not employees using fuel are considered acceptable in the workplace. Athletes using steroids though, whew not so much!  The words used for nootropics made a big difference in how they were perceived. [2]Conrad, Erin C., Stacey Humphries, and Anjan Chatterjee. “Attitudes Toward Cognitive Enhancement: The Role of Metaphor and Context.” AJOB Neuroscience 10, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 35–47. … Continue reading

    The question then remains as to whether or not nootropics are fair in the workplace.  Here’s one direct quote from a participant in the study who sums it up this way: “I would not use these kinds of enhancements if I were in any kind of a competition, such as athletics. However, my field is intellectual and not competitive.” 

    That’s interesting, because while I get it (and, were we discussing a tournament of memory or wordplay games, I would agree), I argue that anyone in the business world is in competition.  We’re always being assessed against our peers, and even a modest boost to being a better worker might just give you the leg up you need to win a promotion or bring a project home that you otherwise would not.

    I classify nootropics in the same category as I do beneficial lifestyle habits.  If person A fixes their sleep schedule so they always get 8 hours of sleep, while person B lives off of 5 hours a night, and person A is more productive, then I consider that justified.  Ditto for exercising regularly to enhance energy levels, drinking plenty of water for all of hydration’s benefits, etc.

    I understand that for many, the line gets blurrier when they consider a pill.  In this case, I liken nootropics to supplements.  For most office workers, you need to supplement vitamin D in order to have optimal levels (not counting the perpetual sun-bathers of course).  I don’t consider it an unfair advantage that I do that, while so much of my competition goes without.  The difference is that you need to educate yourself on what nootropics are beneficial and what are reasonable dosages, then test and work out a lifestyle pattern.  It’s not just “take this, be a genius, crush your office mates.”  The need for discipline is what justifies it.


    1 Patrick Diel, “Caffeine and Doping—What Have We Learned since 2004,” Nutrients 12, no. 8 (July 22, 2020), https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12082167
    2 Conrad, Erin C., Stacey Humphries, and Anjan Chatterjee. “Attitudes Toward Cognitive Enhancement: The Role of Metaphor and Context.” AJOB Neuroscience 10, no. 1 (January 2, 2019): 35–47. https://doi.org/10.1080/21507740.2019.1595771.