The Productivity Paradox: Non-ADHD Individuals Experience Impaired Thinking from “Smart” Drugs like Ritalin

by Hiroshi Tanaka
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smart drugs and productivity

A recent study conducted by the University of Cambridge and the University of Melbourne reveals that so-called “smart” drugs like methylphenidate (Ritalin), modafinil, and dextroamphetamine can actually decrease performance and productivity in neurotypical individuals. Contrary to popular belief, these drugs do not enhance cognitive performance but rather lead to reduced accuracy, increased time consumption, and greater effort in complex tasks.

While smart drugs may initially motivate individuals, the added effort can result in what researchers describe as “erratic thinking.” This adverse effect is particularly detrimental to above-average performers.

Published in the journal Science Advances on June 14, the new research highlights how neurotypical workers and students who take cognitive enhancers or smart drugs may unknowingly hinder their own performance and productivity. Methylphenidate, commonly known as Ritalin and primarily prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is also used by individuals without a diagnosis who believe it will improve focus and cognitive abilities.

The Melbourne trial, consisting of four double-blinded, randomized trials conducted a week apart, involved 40 healthy participants. Each participant took one of the three popular smart drugs (methylphenidate, modafinil, or dextroamphetamine) or a placebo. The participants were assessed based on their performance in a test designed to mimic the complex decision-making and problem-solving tasks encountered in daily life.

Unlike previous studies that focused on simpler cognitive tasks related to memory or attention, this trial involved computationally complex activities that better represented the difficulties people face in real-life situations.

One of the exercises participants were asked to complete was the Knapsack Optimisation Problem, also known as the “knapsack task.” In this exercise, participants were given a virtual knapsack with a specific capacity and a selection of items with varying weights and values. The objective was to determine the optimal allocation of items to maximize the overall value of the knapsack’s contents.

The drugs mentioned in the study are marketed under various brand names. Methylphenidate is sold as Adhansia, Concerta, Daytrana, Metadate, Methylin, Quillivant, and Ritalin. Modafinil is available as Provigil, while dextroamphetamine is marketed as Dexedrine, Dexampex, DextroStat, Ferndex, ProCentra, and Zenzedi.

Overall, participants who took smart drugs experienced a slight decrease in accuracy and efficiency and a significant increase in time consumption and effort compared to when they took the placebo.

For instance, when participants were given methylphenidate, it took them an average of 50% longer to complete the knapsack problem compared to when they received a placebo. Methylphenidate, often used to treat ADHD in children but increasingly misused by college students studying for exams, demonstrated these effects.

Furthermore, participants who performed exceptionally well in the placebo condition showed a more substantial decline in performance and productivity after taking the drugs compared to the rest of the group. On the other hand, individuals with lower performance levels in the placebo condition occasionally exhibited a slight improvement after taking the drugs.

Professor Peter Bossaerts, Leverhulme International Professor of Neuroeconomics at the University of Cambridge, emphasizes the need for further research to understand how these drugs affect non-ADHD users.

Contrary to the common belief that smart drugs make individuals “smarter,” Bossaerts explains, “Our results suggest that these drugs don’t actually make you ‘smarter.’ While the drugs induce dopamine and increase motivation, we observed that the exertion led to more erratic thinking. This finding was made possible because the knapsack task has been extensively studied in computer science.”

Bossaerts concludes, “Overall, performance did not generally improve, leaving unanswered questions about how these drugs affect individuals’ minds and decision-making abilities.”

Dr. Elizabeth Bowman, a researcher at the Centre for Brain, Mind, and Markets at the University of Melbourne and the lead author of the study, highlights that the effectiveness of pharmaceutical enhancers on performance in everyday complex tasks among neurotypical individuals is yet to be determined.

Bowman remarks, “Our research demonstrates that drugs expected to enhance cognitive performance may actually lead healthy users to work harder while producing lower-quality work in a longer timeframe.”

Reference: “Not so smart? ‘Smart’ drugs increase the level but decrease the quality of cognitive effort” by Elizabeth Bowman, David Coghill, Carsten Murawski, and Peter Bossaerts, 14 June 2023, Science Advances. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.add4165

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about smart drugs and productivity

What are smart drugs and how do they affect productivity?

Smart drugs, such as Ritalin, modafinil, and dextroamphetamine, are commonly believed to enhance cognitive performance. However, new research conducted by the University of Cambridge and the University of Melbourne suggests that these drugs can actually hinder productivity and performance in non-ADHD individuals. The study found that smart drugs lead to decreased accuracy, increased time consumption, and greater effort in complex tasks, resulting in what researchers describe as “erratic thinking.”

Are smart drugs effective in improving cognitive performance?

Contrary to popular belief, the study reveals that smart drugs do not make individuals “smarter.” While these drugs induce dopamine and increase motivation, the exertion they cause leads to more erratic thinking rather than enhanced cognitive abilities. The research indicates that the drugs’ impact on decision-making and overall cognitive performance remains unclear.

Can non-ADHD individuals benefit from taking smart drugs?

The study focuses on neurotypical individuals, those without ADHD, who commonly use smart drugs in the belief that they will improve focus and cognitive abilities. However, the research suggests that these individuals may experience impaired thinking and decreased productivity when taking smart drugs. Further investigation is needed to fully understand the effects of these drugs on non-ADHD users.

How was the study conducted?

The study involved four double-blinded, randomized trials conducted a week apart. The participants, 40 healthy individuals, were given one of three popular smart drugs (methylphenidate, modafinil, or dextroamphetamine) or a placebo. Their performance was assessed using a complex decision-making and problem-solving task called the knapsack task. This task aimed to simulate real-life challenges and evaluate the participants’ accuracy, efficiency, and decision-making abilities while under the influence of the drugs or placebo.

What are the implications of this research?

The findings of this study challenge the notion that smart drugs provide a cognitive advantage for non-ADHD individuals. The research suggests that relying on these drugs for cognitive enhancement may lead to decreased productivity, impaired decision-making, and a longer time to complete complex tasks. The study highlights the need for further research to better understand the effects of smart drugs on individuals without ADHD and their overall impact on cognitive performance.

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