Character  &  Context

Getting Help to Get Better: What’s Fair for Me Isn’t What’s Fair for You

Image of various pills on a counter

By Elanor Williams

For a college professor, it can be disconcerting to look out at your students as they take an exam and realize that a fifth, or perhaps as many as one third, of them may have taken ADHD medication in order to do well on the test. Beyond issues of the addictiveness of such mediations or the legality of their use, this knowledge can raise questions about whether the exam will reveal your students’ true level of performance, or merely the medication’s. How is one to judge where the line between the person and the product falls? How do the students who use such enhancing medications make that same call? And what determines whether the use of enhancing products is fair?

The importance of this issue goes beyond the classroom. Many medical and technological advances—including plastic surgery, blood doping, genetic testing, and medications ranging from Provigil to Viagra—are intended to be used at least in part by healthy, normal individuals looking to give themselves a boost. As it turns out, the answer to the question of what such a product does to its user and whether that’s fair is different depending on who is asking. Research that Mary Steffel of the University of Cincinnati and I have conducted reveals a distinct double standard: users of enhancing products tend to see them as helping to unlock hidden or disguised abilities, whereas outsiders are more likely to perceive that same use as adding abilities that otherwise wouldn’t exist.

These findings are consistent with a wealth of recent research showing that people tap into different information when judging themselves and their own abilities versus when judging others and their abilities. People are much more likely to take into account things that might make it seem like an enhancing product is enabling their own true abilities to show, but see the same product as embellishing other people’s abilities. Namely, they are more likely to consider their own intentions, their potential, their futures, even their thoughts in general, to be informative than someone else’s. They are much more likely to consider what someone else has done in the past as representative of what they are capable of than what they think or what they might do.

These different views of who a person is and what an enhancing product might do even end up leading to an ethical double standard: people believe that it is less fair for others to use ability-boosting products than it is for themselves to do so. In our research, for example, we find that people think it is less morally acceptable for another person to utilize an anxiety-reducing intervention—like a prescription drug or even a cup of chamomile tea—to improve performance on a job interview than it is for themselves to do so.

This disparity has important consequences for how people believe enhancing products should be used and regulated. For one, people think that they themselves are more deserving of any good outcomes that result from using enhancing products than others would be for doing the exact same thing. They also feel less of an obligation to disclose to others that they used the products, suggesting that at least on some level they understand that other people may not be quite so understanding. And people consider official policies forbidding the use of enhancing products to be less fair when they think of themselves as the target of the policy than when they think about the policy applying to other people who would use and benefit from the products.

There are, of course, exceptions. People are able to recognize a meaningful distinction between when a “normal person” uses an enhancing product and when someone with a disability that might prevent them from achieving their full potential does. When thinking about a person with ADHD who used an attention-enhancing drug one a test, for instance, people thought that use was no more embellishing and yet more enabling than their own use of the same drug. And more gentle or common products aren’t quite a prone to these self-other differences in fairness. For example, more natural products, like chamomile tea, are less bothersome when others use them—although they are still more bothersome than when used by oneself.

In the end, our research suggests a number of things. One is that, just as products that can enhance their users’ abilities are becoming more common, so should research on the effects of and perception of their use. Another implication is that the recipients of such enhancements can minimize double standards by emphasizing any evidence that might suggest they are truly capable of reaching those heights without help, demonstrating their true potential to others, or, on the other hand, by providing evidence of a true deficit that would justify the use of that kind of medication or product. Finally, by being aware that their own and others’ views of such products may differ, students, professors, and people in general can make wiser choices about using, disclosing, and judging the use of enhancements.


Elanor Williams is an assistant research scientist with the Marketing group at the Rady School of Management, University of California, San Diego. She received her PhD in social psychology at Cornell University. She studies social decision making and the social consumer; more information about her research is available at

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