WASHINGTON—To young college men, it’s more unethical to use performance-enhancing drugs like steroids for athletic gain than to use a prescription drug like Adderall or Ritalin to boost academic achievement.
An estimated 1,200 male college freshmen from Pennsylvania State University completed an online questionnaire created by Tonya Dodge, assistant professor of psychology at George Washington University, and several of her co-authors. Dr. Dodge, who is also the lead author of the study, provided participants with two hypothetical scenarios in which a student seeks a performance-enhancing drug to help them in an athletic competition and on a mid-term exam and each student performed better than expected because of the drug use.
The students were also asked if they had ever misused prescription stimulant drugs, such as Adderall, Ritalin or Dexedrine, or if they had ever used steroids. Less than 1 percent of the sample reported having ever used steroids while about 8 percent said they had misused prescription stimulants in the last 12 months. These figures compare to 8 percent to 34 percent of college students who have reported misusing prescription stimulants and 1.5 percent of adolescents and young adults who have misused anabolic steroids.
The researchers also asked the men if they had played a sport in high school to determine if that would affect their judgments.
Participants significantly rated the steroid user as more of a cheater than the prescription drug user. The difference increased if the students reported having misused prescription stimulants themselves in the past or if they had played a sport, Dr. Dodge said. The students who themselves had used stimulants without a prescription were more inclined to see such drug use as acceptable behavior.
“What is most interesting and curious to me is that using Adderall to succeed in school and using steroids to succeed in sports are really quite similar yet they are viewed differently,” said Dr. Dodge. “These behaviors are similar in the sense that an individual is misusing a substance to gain an advantage in an achievement context. However, participants do not view the misuse of substances in these two domains similarly. That is curious to me.”
She speculates that the discrepancy is based in the costs of cheating. That is, cheating to improve one’s athletic abilities costs the competitor a win while taking a drug to help pass an exam is more of a victimless crime because it does not necessarily come at a cost to others.
“My colleagues and I suspect, and the results are consistent with this, that in sports there can be only one winner so misuse of a substance is less acceptable for achieving success than in academics. In academics, one’s success does not necessarily come at the expense of someone else, but in sports it does. There can only be one winner in sports, and if you have misused a substance and succeeded you might have done so at another’s expense. That seems wrong, and that’s what participants reported,” she said.
Dr. Dodge’s research was recently published online in the APA journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors. The study titled “Judging Cheaters: Is Substance Misuse Viewed Similarly in the Athletic and Academic Domains?” is one of the first to compare perceptions of off-label prescription drug use with perceptions of steroids performance enhancers.
About George Washington University
In the heart of the nation’s capital with additional programs in Virginia, the George Washington University was created by an Act of Congress in 1821. Today, GW is the largest institution of higher education in the District of Columbia. The university offers comprehensive programs of undergraduate and graduate liberal arts study, as well as degree programs in medicine, public health, law, engineering, education, business and international affairs. Each year, GW enrolls a diverse population of undergraduate, graduate and professional students from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and more than 130 countries.
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