March 22, 2006

Drug Use & Performance

BusinessWeek author Michael Mandel comments briefly on attitudes toward steroid use. (via Dynamist Blog) He states that strong views against steroids exist in certain camps only because those groups have no need for such substances. If there were a drug that could enhance other characteristics, opinions may be moderated.

But would we be quite so horrified, I wonder, if we were talking about "smart pills" or memory pills instead of steroids? Suppose that a pharmaceutical company was selling a pill that would improve your memory by 30% or your IQ by 30%, with the same sort of side effects as steroids. Would you be willing to take them for 3 or 5 critical years in your career? What if you knew that everyone else was taking them? What if you knew that the Chinese or the French were taking them?

Read the post here.

An initial reaction may be to deem a hypothetical ‘smart pill’ a form of cheating; a dishonest way of getting ahead. However the playing field in the real world isn’t equal. If the ability of others to speak multiple languages, play multiple instruments and excel in sport wasn’t earned, why should anyone feel guilt over taking a pill that merely improves the cards dealt by the Gods?

Similarly with competitive sport. Many team games are appealing because of the competitive element. It’s enjoyable to see not just exceptional individual performances, but how a group cooperates to achieve some goal. So long as the mismatch between the opposing teams isn’t too great, and the result remains unpredictable, all is well. The use of anabolic steroids wouldn’t eliminate that competitive element. Ronaldinho wouldn’t be any less exciting to watch if his talent derived from a pill as opposed to natural talent.

As Mandel states, the problem lies in the potential coordination problems and averse health effects. We could end up in a world where everyone is taking performance enhancing pills yet each individual would like to stop – IF they could be sure others would do otherwise. This unfortunate state of affairs requires some critical level of people to begin using such pills in the first place. Below this level, one isn't disadvantaged enough to make the pill worthwhile. If the health effects are significant, one would expect pills to be used by a small group of die-hards. The lower the health risk the more widespread the use and the more likely we are to see a coordination problem. But with lower health risk, the harm done by this coordination problem is lessened anyway. I’d guess that for a given level of risk, a ‘smart pill’ would be less prevalent than anabolic steroids in the sporting world. After all, there aren’t million pound contracts and sponsorship deals riding on the job performance of most academics, writers and students. There’s less at stake from poor performance relative to others, and less to gain from superior performance.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Christopher Rossdale

    I guess it's rooted around the problems of a society based on discrimination deriving from chanced opportunities and varying formations of human condition. Do you take that start, and push to equal the playing field, or accept the initial inequality and fight for individualism.

    A comment to Mandel's observation – does he consider drugs such as ecstacy, with a high health risk, and yet small payouts (merely a 'good night'), with use formed around social stigma and peer expectations rather than solid and direct benefits?

    23 Mar 2006, 18:48

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