Into the Performance Society: Stimulant Drugs on Campus

University College, Honours College, Research Master, Student of the Year, Professor of the Year… For students and employees at the university, these concepts are well-known. What they all have in common is that they are about extraordinary performance. Sometimes one can get the impression that there is so much communication about them that the extraordinary seems to have become the new normal.

While such initiatives are ideal for public relations and their emphasis on excellence, focusing on the extraordinary may have a downside –– a downside for those who are not. A concrete example for this may be the discussion about the ‘zesjescultuur’ in the Netherlands. Zes – Dutch for six – is the grade with which you just pass; zes is just sufficient. Or maybe it was sufficient, as the debate is about whether just sufficient is good enough. In other words, one may ask whether ‘sufficient’ is still sufficient.

What happens when sufficient is no longer sufficient?

What could this mean for those who do not belong to the extraordinary, for those who perhaps only wanted to be ‘just sufficient’, and for those in between? I think that the more we focus on top performance, the more people will feel a need to be top performers. We keep comparing ourselves with others; and we may also feel a need to belong to those others around us. What does it feel like when all your friends have the newest consumer product and you are the only one who does not? Or when all go on vacation abroad and you cannot afford the trip?

Besides comparing oneself with others, I am convinced that the – often political – discourse on ‘efficiency’, ‘quality control’, and ‘excellence’ is aimed at making us perform better: We ourselves shall believe that that is what we want to be. A good example is the project report written by a group of British scientists advising their government on the future of society. In the summary of the so-called Foresight Project on Mental Capital and Wellbeing they write in Nature that a country’s citizens must make the most of themselves such that their economy survives in times of global competition. Obviously, this would not work if the majority of people were satisfied with being just sufficient.

Must we perform ever more just for the sake of surviving as a society?

Similarly, scientists were looking for ways to improve people, not those suffering from a disorder, but those who are healthy and normal. In a frequently-cited manifesto also published in Nature, some of them were discussing ways of using stimulant drugs to increase people’s – and in particular students’ – performance. While I had the intuition many years ago that this debate is exaggerating numbers of actual stimulant drug users and that the consumers would rather be people having difficulty to cope with the standards than those who want to be excellent, the question remains how many people are using such substances.

In my teaching for the Honours College mentioned earlier, I often address this topic – and I invite students to raise their own questions and find their own answers. My previous group for whom I organized a Summer School in Berlin 2014 and supervised a project in the last academic year set up a website on self-enhancement with essays and the results of a questionnaire at the University of Groningen (see the About Us section for their names). Notably, they also made a documentary on Ritalin consumption on our campus, featuring actual consumers and experts commenting on it. At the Petrus Camper Festival 2015, when the groups presented their work and the students completed the Honours Program, our project was actually chosen the most interesting one by the visitors.

Documentary: Ritalin – Worthless or Wonderpill? Documentary made by my Honours College project group 2014/2015 (Dutch with English subtitles)

Therefore, I would like to invite the readers of Mindwise to think about the topic and also read my reflection on the documentary. The discussion about the performance society addresses several issues that are relevant for or within the purview of psychology. Can we look behind the need for higher performance? Can we decide whether the emphasis on excellence makes more people happy or unhappy? Can we point out alternatives to stimulant drug consumption? And can we eventually give an answer to the question what else may be sufficient when sufficiency no longer is good enough?

Further reading


What follows is the transcript of a fictitious scenario we used for an educational unit during the Honours College Summer School “Self-Enhancement & Transhumanism” I held at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich on August 21, 2015. Students were split into four groups and had to represent the point of view of one out of four parties during the discussion.

Fictitious Scenario: Academic Doping?

  • A poll by students of the University of Groningen found that 15% of the students are taking stimulant drugs (e.g. Ritalin) to improve their study performance.
  • Public interest is enormous and media demand a statement from the president: How will the university respond to these findings? Should these drugs be banned on campus? Is this behavior unfair for those students not taking the drugs?
  • The president established four advisory boards consisting of (1) students, (2) parents, (3) doctors, and (4) scientists. How will they advise him?

The secretary of the president is opening the meeting. Students, parents, doctors, and scientists each have five minutes to present their views. Afterwards there will be 20 minutes for a free discussion. This is the transcript of the whole session.


  • Students’ Presentation

    • the university should investigate the work pressure for the students, as this may be a cause for the stimulant drug consumption
    • banning the drugs is not feasible, because the students are very inventive to find ways around such a ban
    • for some students it may feel unfair, but you study for yourself; it’s more or less about improving your own knowledge, not to compete; you don’t harm your fellow students; it may feel unfair but in essence it isn’t
  • Parents’ Presentation

    • advise to ban Ritalin on campus or at least to discourage it
    • it is important that the university changes the environment, because there is a reason that 15% of the students take the drug; something should be changed to discourage these students from consuming such substances
    • studying is an important time for the students to investigate their own capabilities and boundaries, thus it is important not to take self-enhancing drugs, you should know what you are capable of without the drugs
    • some parents shall leave the decision to the students (i.e. their children), others will want to control them
    • limit admission to the university, because for certain studies there are not enough jobs, this causes a lot of competition
    • add intermediate exams to reduce stress
    • tell the students about pro’s and con’s of stimulant drug consumption
    • everybody should have fair chances; some students should not have an unfair advantage, because they take these drugs; deciding against the drugs should not lead to a competitive disadvantage
  • Doctors’ Presentation

    • our job is to help people and we commonly use drugs to do so
    • we have seen many success stories that people could concentrate better, for example, when taking stimulant drugs
    • therefore, there is no point in banning the drugs
    • however, we find openness important and want to give lectures and hand out leaflets to students
    • offer private counseling to prevent uninformed drug consumption and make sure that side-effects are taken care of
    • it is up to the persons themselves to take a decision; some feel headaches, but many others don’t; shared decision-making is important, i.e. the doctors help the students to take the decision
    • we don’t see the consumption as unfair: Ritalin does not enhance IQ but focus; and every student should customize her or his function according their need
  • Scientists’ Presentation

    • we wouldn’t allow these drugs on campus but we do not take any statement on what happens outside of the campus
    • we care about the reputation of the university; it would be very bad if all students suddenly took drugs
    • we should have a look at the policy: now some students may feel the need to take the drugs but if you change the policy, that may change
    • it is important to have a high ranking, therefore students should be good, but it is not a good thing to use drugs for this
    • we do not think that it is not unfair because people still need to study, it is not like taking a drug and then you are more intelligent, and they are widely available
    • when people believe that they need these drugs, they have less self-confidence
    • (question of the secretary: do you sometimes take drugs when doing your work? answer: no, we are very smart, but we see some other people using it)

Open Discussion

  • Students: Should there be more exams?
  • Parents: But then you would have smaller amounts that will be tested for
  • Students: Probably students would take more drugs
  • Parents: It will be less knowledge per test
  • Doctors: Maybe there are too many standardized tests
  • Parents: But we should assess students in some way
  • Scientists: So the amount of knowledge should be the same; but maybe there can be less testing generally, particularly if we have less students and less competition
  • Students: What about arts students?
  • Scientists: Maybe we have too many arts students and when we have less, there will be less competition for jobs
  • Students: So I will not be able to study?
  • Scientists: Yes, less students will be admitted; at the medical faculty that’s already done
  • Parents: What is the difference between arts and medicine, anyway? at the end of the study the problem is the same, that there are not enough jobs


  • Question by the Secretary: You just learned that 15% of your children already take these drugs; what do you think about it?
  • Parent: Oh, but my son doesn’t take these drugs; maybe raising children should be improved such that those children won’t feel the need to take drugs; some students feel that the environment is so hostile that they need the drugs; but it should not be necessary, our children would be happier
  • Scientists: But parents are also putting a lot of pressure on their children
  • Doctors: But it is mostly an adolescent thing to take drugs, when people grow up and will do their master’s they will stop
  • Scientists: I don’t know about students, but I know some colleagues, e.g. from the law faculty, who are still using it and also in the business world; there are lawyers taking cocaine, for example; thus it’s not just something young people are doing
  • Student: But I’m 18, why can’t I take this drug myself? You want to ban the drug
  • Scientist: We didn’t say that, I’m rather asking whether parents are putting too much pressure on their children
  • Parents: There are indeed many students who are anxious about failing, maybe that’s the real problem
  • Doctors: Why is it a problem if people are using the drugs? You think they are happier when they are not using the drugs, but from our experience people are so glad that they can take the drugs; also people who are healthy and just have problems with focusing benefit from taking the drugs
  • Scientists: But if people have a problem with focusing, then it is medical treatment
  • Doctors: That’s right, but we prescribe it to help them increase their study performance
  • Scientists: And when they don’t have focus problems?
  • Doctors: Then the drugs do not work that well; therefore we want students to take an informed decisions
  • Scientists: So you allow for healthy people to take the drugs? Then people will have less self-confidence, we are afraid
  • Doctors: If they are only studying well, why should they take the drugs?
  • Parents: Maybe because their friends pressure them
  • Students: We just do not know enough, we need more research to find out what kind of people are taking the drugs and why


  • Question by the Secretary to the doctors: Would you or wouldn’t you prescribe the drugs to students who don’t have a medical condition and only want to perform better? What would you diagnose? And who should pay for that if you prescribe the drugs without a diagnosis, because then the health insurance will not cover the costs?
  • Doctors: no, we would not prescribe drugs without a diagnosis; maybe psychological counseling would be more suitable for such students

The secretary expresses his gratitude to the advisers. The meeting is closed because the president has an important meeting about the university’s plans to expand to China. The secretary invites the advisers to a lunch in a restaurant nearby.


Title foto credit: Christa Nöhren /

Dr Stephan Schleim is Associate Professor of Theory and History of Psychology at the RUG Psychology Department. He studied philosophy, psychology, and computer science and has a PhD in Cognitive Science (2009; University of Osnabrück, Germany). His dissertation was awarded the Barbara-Wengeler-Prize for interdisciplinary research in philosophy and neuroscience (2010; EUR 10,000). He joined the Theory and History of Psychology group at the RUG Psychology Department in 2009.

Stephan is also a public commentator on discoveries in the neurosciences, particularly their social/ethical implications, and an experienced speaker at academic, governmental, and societal institutions. He has worked as a public science writer since 2004, mostly writing in German with translations into several languages. For more information, see his personal website.

His major research interests are the theory and communication of neuroscience as well as the philosophy and future of psychology. For an overview of his publications, see his page at the Theory and History of Psychology department.

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