To take or not to take?

Every semester around law school exam time, I end up writing a post here to ease my anxiety.  This semester’s topic: The ethics of taking performance enhancing drugs.

Prior to entering law school, I was unaware that people took drugs to improve their test taking performance.  But in law school, where it often seems like typing speed distinguishes the A’s from the B’s (those who write faster can say more smart things and get more points), there is a growing minority of students who have calculated the precise number of caffeine pills they should take to hit their optimal typing speed without having side effects.  I’m guessing that there are other drugs out there as well.

One could say that what they are doing is no different from the typical non-Mormon college student who drinks coffee each morning to stay up.  That maybe we shouldn’t even consider this “drugging.” But, I personally do not want to be using drugs with bad side effects to improve my performance.  It seems quite inconsistent with Mormon Word of Wisdom principles, even if not expressly mentioned.  And, yet, because those who take these pills do write faster, and often do perform better, I feel some pressure to join them.

As our technology increases, I suspect that there will be many more pills/surgeries we can have to improve our performance.  How should we respond?


  1. I don’t have any strong opinions about this either way, but it’s worthy to note that caffeine increases anxiety and anxiety does not make a good friend during an exam. Getting more sleep and knowing your material well seems like a better strategy to me, and one that I am using.

  2. Caffeine only causes anxiety in some people. For most it merely provides the desired lift in alertness.

  3. Just knock back a five hour energy and drink alot of water. When speed and precision are important, and sleep is in short supply, do what the jet pilots do. Drink caffeine. Don’t stress yourself out about it.

    However, if you find yourself singing about how you’re “so excited! You’re so excited!” You may be dangerously close to becoming “so… scared!”

  4. As a student in the performing arts I have also asked myself these same questions. Beta blockers, for example, are very commonly used among performing musicians in order to avoid the physical effects of performance anxiety. They are generally used before a performance in order to ensure that one can perform to the best of their abilities without worrying about tremors, sweaty palms, shaking feet, frogs in throats, or debilitating butterflies in the stomach.

    I have no problem whatsoever with performers using them. I don’t use them myself, but having suffered from severe performance anxiety in the past, I can understand how frustrating it can be to have a your sweaty hands slipping all over the piano keys, effectively transforming the piece that you were able to play so perfectly in the practice room into a public debacle. For performing artists, auditions and performances can have significant and long lasting effects on careers (like exams in law school, perhaps?).

    If we are to have few qualms with those who take anti-depressants, and other drugs which are meant to help us with chronic psychological (and physical) problems, then why bring a bone to pick against those who typically suffer from much more exaggerated, yet acute, symptoms?

    I don’t have an answer, but I merely hope that viewing the issue through the lens of another discipline may evoke more thoughtful discussion.

  5. @Micah — Amazing Jesse Spano (sp?) reference!

    I’m actually in law school myself (a lowly 1L, so maybe my comments will need to be taken with a naive grain of salt) but this semester, as well is in my prior academic life, I found it necessary to seek out the benefits of healthy doses of caffeine. (Healthy in the colloquial ‘large’, not actually healthy) I think, like in all other things, do what you feel you need to do.

    You mention the ‘word of wisdom principles’ but I actually find the principles vague and/or confusing. “Temporal salvation,” “not by commandment or constraint,” “forewarn you, by giving unto you this word of wisdom” … however the ‘specifics’ are interpreted, I think that’s the operative term, interpret. Many things are healthy for me (most are not listed in 89) and many things are not healthy (hot drinks and wine not making an exhaustive list) but the section provides a decent list of examples to work with. Bottom line, figure out what works for you. As for me, if the purposes of the word of wisdom include ‘running and not being weary,’ a caffeine boost might be just the trick when you’re running on 3 hours of sleep.


  6. Latter-day Guy says:

    Better living through chemicals, I say. (#4 reminds me of a singer in I knew of who always did better when her mom helped prep her. She thought it was just the emotional support––come to find out, her mom had been putting beta blockers in her “special smoothies.”)

    More to the point, any time you eat anything, you’re taking chemicals. Just because they are naturally-occurring doesn’t change that fact. If you perform better after eating a big bowl of oatmeal and a vitamin, great. If taking caffeine pills helps, go for it. (Presumably you’ll have experimented a bit beforehand to determine the dosage that works for you.)

  7. Caffeine is one of those tricky substances that affects different people in different ways. Some people can down a 2-liter bottle of Mountain Dew and not have the slightest buzz. Someone else can be aversely affected by the amount of caffeine in a candy bar.

    Judge for yourself, based on your past experiences, and remember that caffeine can be incredibly addictive. If you do choose to use caffeine pills, follow the prescribed dosages – don’t try to figure out how many you can take and still function.

  8. I would guess I am against it. I know how drugs has turn into an ‘arms race’ within Sports. I also question the use of ‘energy drinks’ that are now so openly used. I have seen construction workers down a case of cokes to get through the day. I have seen attorneys move on to higher drugs to put in an 80 hour week.

  9. I suggest that you take a Benedryl before exams. It’ll curb the shaky side-effects of the red and green pills you were slamming en masse after buying them from that Vinny dude out on the quad.

  10. During one of my Ph.D. qualifiers, a fellow grad student whose dad was an MD gave him some dexedrine. When the test was handed out and we started, I was trying to slowly read through the problems. I noticed that my friend was literally filling page after page of his bluebook. Glancing around at other people in the room, I saw discouraged looks. When the 3 hours were over, I asked him what he was doing. It turned out he was so hyped that he was furiously copying the test questions over and over again. Shades of The Shining.

  11. living in zion says:

    I vote No on caffeine or anything else beyond good food and reasonable supplements. I know too many people in their 40’s and 50’s who are messed up in the head due to years of stimulant abuse. Not worth it in the long run.

  12. If you have attention deficit disorder, at many colleges you have to guard your medication from those who want to use it as a stimulant to speed themselves up.

    There is an entire culture of faux ADHD out there, all aimed at drug use for performance enhancement.

    Since that sort of use also inhibits creativity, those who really have ADHD are trying to minimize their doses at the same time others are trying to abuse the drugs.

    Anyway, just a note.

  13. Hmm, I started writing that post and then had to run some errands. Came back and was a bit surprised to see the other posts after mine posted.

    I graduated from law school a long time ago (in 1982), but even then, I remember playing a video game and a kid came up and gave me some advice about the right candy and such to maximize my playing.

    When I explained I was just eating the peanut butter cups because I liked them, he backed off.

    But performance tuning has been going on for a long time.

  14. Natalie B. says:

    12–Actually, I’ve noticed a lot of what I think is faux ADHD use as well. And, since people with learning disabilities get extra time, I’ve wondered how many people use that as a way to game the system. How cynical I’ve become :)

    These are all interesting comments. They make me think about what I see as the line between “stimulants” that I would and would not use. I think I personally draw the line at those that can lead to abuse/cause bad side effects. I would have to wonder about my priorities if I was willing to engage in that behavior. Where does it end? There will always be pressure to perform.

    As we enter an age where genetic alternation becomes more possible, I hate to think of what pressure we will feel to alter ourselves to be more productive.

  15. micah comment #3,

    Awesome comment. That was one of most hard-hitting SbTB episodes ever, truly a cautionary tale.

    I find that I do my most coherent and cogent writing when I have a 20oz Pepsi Max to nurse. There is something special in the Pepsi Max formula that makes my mind click. I try to limit myself to one PM per week but when my comprehensive exams arrive in several months I will certainly be upping my dosage (and the corresponding Excedrin PM dosage at night in counteraction).

  16. #5 – Ahhh, the joys of first year and beginning to see vagueness and ambiguities in all we read or see. Our moot court case had to deal with a tree in a city park where the branch was rotten, fell and killed a child. For years I wouldn’t let my kids sit under trees unless I personally checked the lower branches (don’t ask me how).
    The WoW is interpreted and I am still waiting for the explanation as to the use of barley “and other grain” for the making of “mild drinks”
    I too graduated from law school some years ago (’83) and in my third year discovered a number of students who were taking uppers so they could stay awake while studying, studying, studying. Good old Coca-Cola did it for me.
    Which reminds me of a story of President McKay where while attending an event in a movie theater, the manager apologized for serving cold drinks in coca-cola cups. President McKay smiled and said, not a problem as long as there was coke inside the cup. :)

  17. Can’t there be some things the doctrine is silent on? God can be indifferent as to whether or not men wear navy blue or charcoal gray suits on their missions.

    Similarly, the doctrine is silent on this matter (just as the doctrine is silent as to caffeine). If it doesn’t hurt you–and your scenario would suggest that it does not–then can’t this be a matter personal preference?

    As an example, I generally don’t like taking pills; even for things like headaches. Still, I don’t begrudge (or consider myself above) those that take a Tylenol for one.

    This is a cultural (Mormon culture) question, not a doctrinal one.

  18. The biggest difficulty with dealing with caffeine is that it does hurt some people. When someone downs a 12-pack of Diet Vanilla Pepsi each morning and says, “Oh, it is okay, there aren’t any calories in it,” that person has a problem. Especially when he gets splitting headaches and extremely irritable when he doesn’t have his 12 cans of soda. I had a room-mate who did exactly this. When we tried to get him to see what was going on, he got even more upset and insisted that he just liked the taste. Okay, yeah, maybe you like the taste of Diet Vanilla Pepsi, but at 144 ounces in one morning, that’s a little under 450mg of caffeine. To put that in perspective, that’s about the same amount of caffeine in 32 ounces of generic coffee, or three cans of Monster energy drink. And beyond being addictive, caffeine is a stimulant, so it can have all sorts of nasty side effects on various body systems.

    Doctrinally, the Word of Wisdom sets the minimum standard for health and well-being. Couple Section 89 with the various verses that speak of doing things in wisdom and in order and in not being compelled in all things, and we find that this cultural issue is very much a doctrinal one, as well. The key to the issue is that not all are commanded to do the same thing at the same time. It ultimately must become a matter of personal contemplation and prayer.

  19. I’m a believer in natural law…meaning there really aren’t short cuts. I dont’ think you can cheat. I think it affects your body. consequences may be postponed or difficult to identify, but they exist.

  20. Natalie B. says:

    Most of these comments have focused on personal choice. And that’s fine. But what actually bothers me about this situation is the pressure that it puts on everyone else to do likewise or lose on the curve. It has a pre-Gattica aspect to it. Is this “arms race” as it was described in one of the comments socially healthy? What else will we feel pressured to do in the future when technology goes beyond mere caffeine? I’m genuinely unsure of what I think, so I’d love to hear more opinions of the social aspect of this phenomenon.

  21. I take NoDoz to stay awake in sacrament meeting. Is it better to sleep naturally or stay awake and listen?

    It is a real problem. I am embarrassed when I nod off.

  22. Regarding the “arms race” aspect of performance enhancing drugs for mental achievement, I am very skeptical they help much. Perhaps that is because I reject the premise that typing speed distinguishes A’s and B’s in law school. Even on my most rushed exams, I still spent more time thinking than I did typing…and I got pretty good grades. From my experience at law school, the kids at the top of the class never used “performance enhancing drugs.” I doubt that caffeine makes you smarter; it just gives more energy. In some areas of live that really does improve performance, but I don’t think it does on law school exams.

    I know my position really takes away the moral question involved. I couldn’t resist sharing my two cents anyway.

  23. Natalie B. says:

    22: I think it depends on who is grading. Some professors like thinking, but at my school, many have said explicitly that it is a race.

  24. So under your scenario, the person who types 97 WPM beats the person who types 65 WPM every time? Then of course its an arms race. And this is just like competitive sports, except there the performance enhancing options have been more obvious.

    Maybe you should invest in a mechanical keyboard (something that is said to produce faster typing speeds) or just good old fashioned typing lessons. But just like athletes who hit the weight room to condition themselves, maybe hitting the keyboard–an intellectual’s weight room?–will be a more obvious choice than a drug cocktail.

    And old fashioned practice will work because academia isn’t going to be competitive in the same way sprinters win races by hundredths of seconds. The person who types 97 WPM will not beat the person who types 95 WPM.

    Build your typing skills before you worry about caffeine.

  25. Natalie,
    What is the difference if we do not drink and do not participate in the wine and beer sessions after work? We loose out on the social connections because of our choices of recreational drugs. This might easily cost us a promotion.

    It seems to me that choosing to be Mormon has real consequences.

  26. One pill makes you larger
    And one pill makes you small
    And the ones that mother gives you
    Don’t do anything at all

    Go ask Alice
    When shes ten feet tall
    And if you go chasing rabbits
    And you know your going to fall

  27. Latter-day Guy says:

    19, That argument could justify eschewing any and all medical intervention, from Tylenol and band-aids to heart surgery. Thus we are back to square one: pick the option with the set of consequences you’re most willing to accept.

  28. LDG, It could, and all modern transportation and technology in general…I’m just saying consider that there are ALWAYS consequences. Looking at just typing spped doesn’t really tell the whole picture here.

    Sometimes ( note I said sometimes), the side effects of the medicine are worse than the benefits it gives you. Sometimes there is a slower more natural way-sometimes it’s a combination….

    I’m just saying if someone says something that seems too good to be true…do a liitle research. Taking a caffeine pill=better law degree test …that doesn’t make any sort of sense. Surgery to remove cancer..there is some logic there—wouldn’t you agree? Sure there are consequences to t he surgery to be considered as well, but that is a logical thought.

  29. Natalie: I went to your school. :)

  30. Latter-day Guy says:

    I’m just saying consider that there are ALWAYS consequences.

    Oh, no argument from me on that count.

    Taking a caffeine pill = better law degree test … that doesn’t make any sort of sense.

    Well, if caffeine helps improve one’s typing speed (and again, if somebody is pursuing that route, they’d best make sure that taking caffeine actually does that for them), and if typing speed is an important factor in examination success, then it makes perfect sense. If taking caffeine causes negative effects, the test-taker will have to weigh the potential benefit of faster typing with the potential liability posed by those side effects (both those affecting general health and academic aptitude).

    As I said: you have to pick the option with the set of consequences you’re most willing to accept. It’s a simple matter of cost/benefit.


    But what actually bothers me about this situation is the pressure that it puts on everyone else to do likewise or lose on the curve.

    There are other ways to finagle the curve — arranging for your brightest classmates to contract food poisoning on the day of the exam, for example. :)

  31. Natalie B. says:

    29: Oh, I know who you are! I had one professor last year who told us that he was setting up the exam so that it would be impossible to cover all the issues, so that he could reward people who could recall them the fastest. That was the class where I first learned that people were engaging in this behavior.

  32. Natalie B. says:

    I think the most interesting thing to me about this post is how comfortable many people are with using stimulants. I expected far more people to feel less comfortable. I wonder to what extent the people here are representative of what other Mormons would say?

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    Boy, I feel old. I don’t remember anything at all about performance enhancing drugs in law school (I graduated in 1985). Maybe it was all those ‘ludes I took… Seriously, though, I’m skeptical that they would be a significant benefit. I wouldn’t experiment with anything for a test unless I knew damn well sure how it would affect me.

  34. #32: Natalie, it’s funny__ when I went to college in the 60s, everyone was MELLOW. No one was taking stimulants. It was more like they were in a fog. All the drugs seemed to turn people passive. The girls did use ‘Reds’ to loss weight and could go 36 hrs without stopping, but they were not getting A’s in law school.

  35. StillConfused says:

    Thinking back on my law school days, I never felt the need for any form of stimulant. The ones who did that kind of thing were over-studying anyway and their grades suffered as a result. More time spent studying doesn’t equal better grades. Pay attention in class, understand the underlying ideas, sleep well, eat right and exercise and all will be just fine.

  36. #32: Natalie, although it fits the definition, to a very mild degree, I really never think of caffeine as a “stimulant”. PCP is a stimulant. Illegally obtained ridlin is a stimulant. Cocaine, heroine, ditto…

    Extra effort in pursuit of what you’re driven to authentically excel at is not a moral lapse. If a little caffeine helps you stave off the long nights, that’s what its there for.

    Then again, if you find yourself studying something that you’re not driven in that way about, ignore this post and get some rest. ;)

  37. Typing is a fine motor skill, so taking a beta blocker is probably going to be better than a stimulant, as a stimulant can have negative effects such as hindering ability to concentrate, and have a negative impact on fine motor skill accuracy. Do you know any violinists? They are your best beta-blocker source!

  38. #36 heroin is not a stimulant…