Research Article: How perceived substance characteristics affect ethical judgement towards cognitive enhancement

Date Published: March 14, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Eric Mayor, Maxime Daehne, Renzo Bianchi, Nikolaos Georgantzis.


Some individuals seek to enhance their cognitive capabilities through the use of pharmacology. Such behavior entails potential health risks and raises ethical concerns. The aim of this study was to examine whether a precursor of behavior, ethical judgement towards the use of existing biological cognitive enhancers (e.g., coffee, legal and illegal drugs), is shaped by the perceived characteristics of these cognitive enhancers. Students and employees completed an online questionnaire which measured perceived characteristics of 15 substances presented as potential cognitive enhancers and a measure of ethical judgement towards these cognitive enhancers. Results of mixed model regression analyzes show that ethical judgement is more favourable when cognitive enhancers are perceived as being legal, familiar, efficient, and safe for users’ health, supporting all hypotheses. Results further show that 36% of variance (in the null model) lies at the level of cognitive enhancers and 21% at the level of participants. In conclusion, cognitive enhancers vary widely in terms of ethical judgement, which is explained by the perception of the mentioned characteristics. Implications regarding prevention and policy-making are discussed.

Partial Text

Cognitive enhancement (CE) refers to the use of technology to improve cognitive characteristics (e.g., memory, attention) and thereby human performance [1]. As for technological innovation in general, CE is often faced with skepticism [2], but also has a non-negligible fraction of supporters among the public [3] and in the media industry [4]. Determinants of ethical support towards CE remain to be better understood. The present study examines whether ethical judgement towards the use of existing biological cognitive enhancers (edible or drinkable substances, notably) is related to their perceived characteristics.

Zero-order correlations between the perceived characteristics of the cognitive enhancers are provided in Table 1. Ethical judgement correlated significantly with all other studied variables: positively with familiarity, effectiveness and negatively with health risk (strongest correlation with ethical judgement: r = .46). The cognitive enhancers that were perceived to be legal received a more favourable ethical judgement than those that were not, and were considered less risky. Finally, effectiveness correlated negatively with health risk.

In the present study, we examined whether and how ethical judgement regarding the use of cognitive enhancers was related to the perception of four characteristics of cognitive enhancers. In line with our hypotheses, cognitive enhancers received a more favourable ethical judgment when they were perceived as more familiar, more effective, less risky for users’ health, and legal (more so if perceived as sold over-the-counter). [19] found similar results for health risk, but did not find a significant association with legal status, which may reflect the lower ecological validity of the vignette method.

Our study suggests that individual perceived characteristics of cognitive enhancers influence people’s ethical judgement towards CE. These findings extend the incipient knowledge about the factors relating to favourable views of CE. Well-designed prevention campaign should focus on presenting the health and penal risks of cognitive enhancers, as well as the lack of evidence regarding their effectiveness.

A. The list of cognitive enhancers participants were requested to assess is presented below. These were randomly presented to each participant for each assessed characteristic.




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