White-Collar Steroids

Science, technology, and life.
July 2 2008 10:20 AM

White-Collar Steroids

Are people in your office using performance-enhancing drugs?

I'm not talking about steroids. I'm talking about brain enhancers, such as Ritalin for concentration and Provigil for sleep reduction. Two months ago, I wrote about a Nature survey in which 20 percent of a self-selected sample of scientists, academics, and journalists admitted using such drugs "for non-medical reasons to improve my concentration, focus and memory ." In absolute terms, it's hard to argue against these neuroenhancers. But in relative terms, freedom of enhancement can become coercive. If your officemates are outworking you by popping pills, can you afford not to join them?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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We know this is a problem in sports. Has it become a problem in the white-collar workplace? Neil Munro examines this question in a recent issue of National Journal . The answer seems to be: We don't yet know, but signs point to trouble ahead.

Munro goes through what little we know. First, there's the non-random Nature poll. Then there's a survey at one college in which one of every six students admitted to taking prescription drugs as a study aid. Munro also cites the recent doubling of adult prescriptions for Adderall and Ritalin, implying that the increase is too big and fast to be purely therapeutic. But the really interesting comment comes from Zack Lynch, the executive director of the Neurotechnology Industry Organization:

If you're GE Capital and you have offices in 154 financial centers around the planet, and these [brain-drug] tools are available in Dubai, and your workers there are trading more effectively, 5 to 10 percent better—they'll have a neuro-competitive advantage over workers where these tools are not legalized.

Neuro-competitive advantage . There's the leverage point for pushing brain boosters into the workplace. The good news is, these pills might make you more productive. The bad news is, if you don't take them, some guy in Dubai will, and he'll eat your job. Lynch flatly tells Munro that if the United States restricts performance-enhancing office drugs, "companies will shift their work offshore."

I don't want to make this scenario sound like it'll be here tomorrow. The brain is notoriously finicky, so there are a lot of obstacles and side effects to work out. But the same is true of performance-enhancing drugs in sports, and that hasn't stopped them from becoming a coercive presence.

Munro points out that neuroenhancement is a big emerging market and that one firm has already been caught exploiting it:

Cephalon, a large biopharmaceutical company, agreed to pay a $425 million settlement to the federal government last year after the firm's sales force was accused of marketing its Provigil anti-sleep drug for purposes other than those for which it has been approved. Provigil was approved for treating narcolepsy, but it was used as a stimulant by some of the scientists who responded to the Nature poll.

Next time you're chatting with your colleagues around the water cooler, ask what they're taking with their water.

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