Management by Drug Abuse

In the future, corporate drug testing will be to see if you’re taking the drugs the company wants you to take.

An argument found and posted by Nick Carr, in Managing productivity through pharmacology, holds that people should be allowed to take drugs that dull their minds to everything but the task at hand. Carr takes this as the next logical step, as a follow-on to an editorial in Nature calling for governments to allow mentally healthy people access to prescription-only drugs like Ritalin. The scientists, several of whom hold chairs funded by drug companies, think that such drugs should not be used only as correctives, but for all those who want to stimulate their minds.

Carr is mildly concerned by the legalize it view of these scientists, but seems to see the Frank Pasquale post as a logical follow-on, though Pasquale holds that companies may require workers to take drugs so they’re focused solely on one task, thus increasing productivity.  Pasquale is being tongue-in-cheek: his real feelings are here.)

But even in the original Nature editorial is a weird leap of logic. The Nature editorial authors call neuro drugs the moral equivalent of exercise, sleep, nutrition, teaching, using computers, writing and language itself. They seem to have confused their moral equivalence with their moral hazard. Just because two things have a similar effect does not make them the same.

I’m not necessarily against brain enhancements — I have consumed coffee when tired, and I like to exercise to relieve stress and change my perspective (I took a walk before posting this). More to the point, it’s painful to make errors or fail to recall a fact at a crucial moment or to have the mind wander when you need it to be paying attention. At those moments, drugs sound pretty good. And if there were a drug that would make my first drafts better, I’d at least be tempted to take it.

But here are some issues with encouraging people to pop mind pills. We know that we don’t have personalized medicine — we don’t know what drugs work for which people. Thus there are always side effects, sometimes severe ones. Even something as simple as caffeine pills might not work as expected; I well remember falling asleep despite having popped caffeine pills, and I’ve amped up on coffee only to find myself getting into raging arguments that killed everybody’s productivity. I also know people who were put on anti-depressants that caused other deleterious side effects, including life-threatening ones.

I’m also leery of things that dehumanize us, and drugs that get rid of our variations do exactly that.

Research suggests modest enhancements at best with today’s crop of brain drugs. We’ll probably get better at them. But should we? If you could take a drug that would make you a better manager, would you?

I’ve posted a pill-popping poll on Big Think, where I first put this musing.

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