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Smart Pills for Smart Work?

By Anjan Chatterjee and Stacey Humphries

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Would you take a pill if it made you more productive at work? Or perform better in school? Do you care if other people around you are taking such a pill? For the last couple of decades, the ethics of the use of cognitive enhancement in healthy people, or cosmetic neurology as I dubbed the practice (Chatterjee, 2004), has been cause for much debate. Are these medications safe? Is it fair to take them? Would people feel coerced to take such medications? Do they compromise their own authenticity by turning to pharmacologic aids? Most of the debates have been among academics, even though the issue garners a lot of interest in the general public, as depicted vividly in the Netflix documentary Take Your Pills. With this backdrop, we took the simple, albeit rare, step of asking the general public directly what they think about the use of such medications.

Earlier, we reported that people accepted the use of such enhancements for work more than for use at school or in sports (Conrad, Humphries, & Chatterjee, 2019). People were more open to others taking such pills than they were inclined to take the pills themselves. Their attitudes were somewhat malleable when it came to others’ use of enhancements. Their opinions shifted depending on the kind of metaphors framing the issue. If the enhancements were described as “fuel for the brain,” people were more open to their use than if they were described as “steroids for the brain.” These framing effects were modest and did not affect people’s attitudes about their own use.

In our recent study, we returned to these questions about the public’s malleability in their acceptance of the use of cognitive enhancement. 2,519 American participants completed two surveys. First, people responded to stories describing a fictional character. The stories were set up with new framing metaphors (Pandora’s box that releases brain performance vs. key that unlocks brain potential), the role and context of their use (student/educational vs. employee/professional), and the type of activity (blue vs. white collar). Second, people read personalized stories describing their own situation. We also wondered if people were affected by peers who use enhancements, the competition for jobs and promotions, and the endorsement of authority figures. 

Across both surveys (see Figure), as we found before, people were more accepting of workers using enhancements than they were for students. They were more open to others taking pills than they would take themselves. Students were more likely to consider using these pills than non-students. Across the board, opinions did not change if the enhancements were used for blue-collar or white-collar work.

The framing metaphors (Pandora’s box versus Key), unlike in the earlier study, did not affect people’s acceptance about the use of enhancement by others but did affect whether participants would consider taking such pills themselves. People exposed to the Key metaphor were more likely to consider using enhancement than people exposed to the Pandora’s box metaphor. While both metaphors suggested that the medications allow users to improve their mental abilities, the different meanings associated with them may have aligned with different values and risks. For example, the Pandora’s box metaphor may have raised concerns about negative consequences whereas the key metaphor implies the unlocking of native talents. Regardless of the specific reason for these effects, it remains clear that the influence of metaphor framing in the acceptability of pharmacological enhancements is fragile.

Figure Legend: Public response to stories about the use of cognitive enhancements depending 
on the context (education or work) and if applied to a third person (M. Miller) or to themselves. 

The social context in the stories influenced people’s opinions. People found enhancement use more acceptable when used by many peers, confirming the idea that social norms are important in the choices we make. They were also more accepting if the use of these medications was encouraged by authority figures. Surprisingly, they were less accepting of the use of enhancements under more competitive conditions. This observation suggests that motivations to “get ahead” are mitigated by desires for fairness. 

Disparities from the use of cognitive enhancement have not quite caused a public uproar. Income inequality and different application of the law and enforcement based on the color of a person’s skin are far more pressing social disparities. Yet, distributive injustice in the use of enhancements remains a concern when socio-economic upward mobility is increasingly constrained. As we found, people care about fairness.


  1. Chatterjee, A. (2004). Cosmetic Neurology: The controversy over enhancing movement, mentation and mood. Neurology, 63, 968-974. 
  2. Conrad, E. C., Humphries, S., & Chatterjee, A. (2019). Attitudes Toward Cognitive Enhancement: The Role of Metaphor and Context. AJOB : Neuroscience, 10(1), 35-47. doi:10.1080/21507740.2019.1595771
  3. Dinh, C., Humphries, S., & Chatterjee, A. (2020). Public Opinion on Cognitive Enhancement Varies Across Different Situations. 


Anjan ChatterjeeMD, FAAN, is a Professor of Neurology, Psychology, and Architecture and the founding Director of the Penn Center for Neuroaesthetics. He wrote The Aesthetic Brain: How we evolved to desire beauty and enjoy art and co-edited: Neuroethics in Practice: mind, medicine, and society, and The Roots of Cognitive Neuroscience: behavioral neurology and neuropsychology. He has received the Norman Geschwind Prize in Behavioral and Cognitive Neurology and the Rudolph Arnheim Prize for contribution to Psychology and the Arts. He is or has been in the editorial board of several journals focused in neuroscience, neurology, ethics, and aesthetics. He is a founding member of the Board of Governors of the Neuroethics Society, the past President of the International Association of Empirical Aesthetics, and the past President of the Behavioral and Cognitive Neurology Society. 

Stacey Humphries received her PhD in Psychology from the University of Manchester in 2016. She is currently a postdoctoral scholar in Anjan Chatterjee’s lab at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies the cognitive and neural basis of action representations and aesthetic experience.

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Chatterjee, A. and Humphries, S. (2020). “Smart Pills for Smart Work?” The Neuroethics Blog. Retrieved on , from


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