Psychosocial factors facilitating use of cognitive enhancing drugs in education: a qualitative investigation of moral disengagement and associated processes

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Colleges, School and Institutes


Illicit use of prescription drugs (e.g., Modafinil) to enhance academic performance – termed cognitive enhancement (CE) – is a legal, health and ethical issue. Guided by Bandura’s (1991) social cognitive theory of moral thought and action, the current study investigated whether student users of CE evidenced specific psychosocial mechanisms (i.e., mechanisms of moral disengagement) when explaining their reasons for CE. Following ethical approval from the lead author’s institution, in-depth-semi-structured interviews were conducted with nine students with experience of CE. Data were content analyzed deductively, using definitions for the eight mechanisms of moral disengagement; six of the eight mechanisms were identified through data analysis: diffusion of responsibility, advantageous comparison, distortion of consequences, displacement of responsibility, moral justification, and euphemistic labelling. In addition, inductive data analysis identified three further themes; self-medication, family and friends, and institutional position. Overall, the study findings suggest students may morally disengage to justify and rationalize use of CE to minimize negative emotional responses (e.g., guilt) that may be expected to result given the potential legal-, health-, and ethics-based deterrents to CE


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)329–338
Number of pages10
JournalDrugs: Education, Prevention and Policy
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 2 Jul 2019


  • performance enhancement, interviews, nootropics, study drugs