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Walking the Line Between Cheating and Competing

by Elanor Williams

Amazing technological advances have reduced the constraints that our physical bodies and minds place on our performance. Medications can increase people’s ability to concentrate, to stay awake or get a good night’s sleep, or even make full use of the oxygen in their blood. Implants can make the blind see or the deaf hear again. Advanced prosthetic limbs mean that amputees can dance, climb mountains, or run marathons. These products can take forms beyond medication and treatment, as well. Software and hardware advances like Photoshop or even cell phones can help people be and do better, as can services and procedures like SAT prep courses or resumé polishing services.

Yet when Lance Armstrong admitted to using performance enhancing drugs to win the Tour de France, it was clear that he knew how harshly he would be judged for having done so, and he revealed that he had worked hard to justify his behavior to himself. He went so far as to look up the definition of cheating and decide it couldn’t apply to him, as he was just creating a “level playing field” instead of gaining an advantage over others. And while athletes are well-known users of enhancing products, sports are not the only domain in which people commonly seek a potentially unethical boost.

Some surveys1 have shown that over a third of college students at some schools have used Ritalin or Adderall off-label to concentrate for an exam or assignment. The narcolepsy medication Provigil is sometimes used by pilots and surgeons to increase wakefulness. Six million doses of Botox were administered in 2012. Although Armstrong’s excuses (and those of others in similar situations) may seem ludicrous to outsiders, they emphasize how important it is to examine and understand the tension between the good these products can do and the unfair advantages they can bestow, and the diff erences between how such products are perceived by their users and how they are perceived by observers of that use. Products that can enhance traits and abilities are becoming more common, more effective, and more readily available. Potential users of these products and those firms that develop, market, and sell them need to understand what the playing field now looks like.

One notable feature of this trend is that many, if not most, of these products were originally intended to help those at a disadvantage perform at normal levels, but now get used by healthy people seeking to build on their existing abilities. This adds an extra wrinkle to these products’ development and marketing, and has a strong influence on how their use is perceived. Both firms and consumers can play a part in making sure products that can increase performance help as many people as possible, with as few negative “side effects,” like moral discomfort, guilt or even accusations of cheating, as possible. Research has revealed three rules for firms to follow, to keep potential consumers open to their products, and one basic rule for the users themselves.

,Firm Rule #1: Be Natural. One basic feature that predicts public perception is enhancing products’ artificial nature. People are often uncomfortable with ingesting things they perceive to be unnatural or synthetic. Modern preferences for organic and natural foods, and discomfort with genetically modified crops, typify this trend. Medications and other chemicals fall into this category as well, and the more unnatural an enhancing product seems, the less acceptable it seems. A pharmaceutical intervention administered via injection seems less ethical2 than one administered via a pill, for example. Even young children3 believe that amplifying traits via medication, rather than authentic effort, is cheating, and that people who do so are less talented than those who are naturally abled. The more closely firms can tie the positive effects of their products to traits the user already has or to effort the user needs to put forth, the more positively those products will likely be viewed. For example, observers may be more accepting of a person who loses weight via a drug that works in concert with diet and exercise than one that “magically” melts pounds away.

Firm Rule #2: Be Selective. The traits that get enhanced also matter – some traits are more appropriately enhanced than others. In particular, research has shown that the more fundamental to a person’s identity a trait is, the less okay people are with enhancing it.4 For instance, people are much more comfortable with the idea of taking a medication that might enhance their ability to memorize things than one that might improve their ability to empathize with or be kind to others. One thing that moderated these beliefs is how improvement due to these medications is described. People were more accepting5 of medications that improve fundamental traits when they were advertised with a tagline like “Become Who You Are.” Such taglines described the medications as revealing the user’s hidden ability levels or enabling a person’s true traits to show. In contrast, taglines like “Become More Than Who You Are,” suggest that medications allow users to show ability levels they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Firm Rule #3: Be Accessible.Finally, the playing field does matter. People are sensitive to the effects the use of such products might have on others, and they are less approving of enhancements when they help some people get ahead, especially at the expense of other people.6 Feelings of both competitive fairness and distributive fairness have an influence. Most of the objection to college students using nonprescribed ADHD medications (beyond health and legal concerns) is that those users might receive better grades than other students who had worked just as hard (or harder) to succeed. The idea of someone else having their path smoothed while one’s own is not is frustrating. This is especially true when that other person’s path is smoothed because they have more money or privilege. Unequal access is likely to make someone’s use of an enhancing product seem especially unfair.

Consumer Rule #1: Be Careful. But if all of this is true, and people are uncomfortable with products that enhance traits and abilities, how do people convince or allow themselves to use these products? The taglines above give some clue. Research I have been conducting with a colleague, Mary Steffel of the University of Cincinnati, suggests that people believe that enhancing products have different effects on themselves than they do on others.7 People have access to their own beliefs and intentions about how well they could potentially perform, and end up treating that potential as if it already reflects reality; they don’t give other people the same credit for potential. Thus, when they consider using products that can help improve performance, they believe that those products will help them reveal a performance level they know they could reach but haven’t yet. But without the same confidence that other people have yet-to-be-revealed potential, those exact same products seem to add traits and abilities that don’t belong to others. This view that enhancing products enable one’s own true traits to show, but embellish others’ abilities, means that people believe that their own use is more acceptable than others’.

Further, this double standard leads people to think that they should be less obligated to disclose their use of enhancing products than others are – in business, education, or even dating contexts. Issues of disclosure become more important as enhancing products become more common and their ethical and legal ramifications become clear. For example, does a sports team have the right to require that its athlete admit any use of PEDs before signing a contract? Should hospitals (or patients) request that their doctors disclose whether they use self-prescribed focus-enhancing medications during procedures, or at any point in the hiring process? This research suggests that the answer to questions like these is likely to differ depending on whether one is asking for or making the disclosure. The double standard also changes how strictly people believe these kinds of products should be regulated depending on whether they are thinking of themselves or others. When people focus on themselves using a medication, they believe that medications should be more widely available than when they focus on a group (even one that they are a part of ) using the same products to the same ends. Future research will continue to determine what else causes and alleviates these double standards, and what other features can make these products more or less acceptable to users and observers.

What does this mean so far for the biotech and other firms that produce enhancing products and services, and for people who wish to take advantage of them? It is important to note that people aren’t uniformly against the use of enhancements. Advice to producers and marketers to increase their appeal might include: to consider ways to make them seem more natural in form and function or to tie their effects to inherent features of their users (like effort and existing traits); to think carefully about which traits products enhance; to find ways to make sure their products are available to as many people as possible; and to minimize any negative effects the use of their products might have on others. In addition, our research and that of others shows that people do recognize the difference between products and users trying to gain an advantage and those who may need encouragement to overcome a deficit. Advice to potential users is simpler: remember that you may not have the same view of your behavior as others do, and what you consider to be a disadvantage may not appear to be one to others. After all, the playing field now looks very different to Lance Armstrong than it does to his disappointed fans. Thoughtful development, marketing, and use of enhancing products can help these new wonders of technology be as useful, helpful, and remarkable as they truly can be.

Elanor Williams is a postdoctoral scholar at the Rady School of Management. She studies consumer decision making, including topics like how people use others to help them make choices and why people repeat mistakes.


  1. DeSantis, Alan D., Elizabeth M. Webb, and Seth M. Noar (2008), “Illicit Use of Prescription ADHD Medications On a College Campus: A Multi-Methodological Approach. Journal of American College Health, 57 (3), 315-23.
  2. Scheske, Christel and Simone Schnall (2012), “The Ethics of “Smart Drugs”: Moral Judgments About Healthy People’s Use of Cognitive-Enhancing Drugs,” Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 34, 508-15.
  3. Lockhart, Kristi L., Frank C. Keil, and Justine Aw (2013), “A Bias for the Natural? Children’s Beliefs About Traits Acquired Through Effort, Bribes, or Medicine,” Developmental Psychology, forthcoming.
  4. Riis, Jason, Joseph P. Simmons, and Geoffrey P. Goodwin (2008), “Preferences for Enhancement Pharmaceuticals: The Reluctance to Enhance Fundamental Traits,” Journal of Consumer Research, 35 (3), 495-508.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Scheske and Schnall, 2012.
  7. Williams, Elanor F., and Mary Steffel (2013), “Double Standards in the Use of Enhancing Products by Self and Others,” under invited revision at Journal of Consumer Research.