“Smart drugs” in financial services: A growing trend?

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August 7, 2017

Anecdotal evidence suggests more people working in financial services are using “smart drugs” with the aim of boosting their professional performance. Real data is needed to understand this trend.

To that end, the Brain, Mind and Markets Laboratory at the University of Melbourne is conducting the first-ever survey of the use of “smart drugs” in the Australian financial services industry. The confidential and anonymous survey takes between 5 to 10 minutes to complete online.

This research is being jointly led by myself, Dr Carsten Murawski and Professor Peter Bossaerts, the two of whom established the Brain, Mind and Markets Laboratory in 2016 to bring together a multidisciplinary team to study financial decision-making and market behaviour.

Unique in the world, the lab brings together research in finance and economics, neuroscience, and computer science to better understand not just what influences individuals to make decisions, but also how markets process information and how humans and computer algorithms influence each other in decision-making environments.

“Smart drugs” or “nootropics” refer to medications or substances used to try to improve cognitive functions. The aim of people taking them might be to increase mental alertness and concentration, fight fatigue, focus attention, reduce anxiety and stress, or generally boost energy levels and wakefulness. The drugs the lab is interested in might be prescription-only medications such as Ritalin or Provigil, over-the-counter substances such as caffeine or nicotine, or illicit drugs such as cocaine or amphetamines.

While there has been some scientific research performed in controlled conditions on how these substances influence basic cognitive tasks, these studies often show quite mixed results in terms of effects on cognition. Of further concern is that many professional industries (such as medicine and finance) require far more creative and multidimensional approaches to what are often computationally complex and intractable problems. It is still unknown if these drugs can help or hinder this kind of problem-solving.

There have been studies, both in Australia and internationally, that have surveyed use of these drugs in populations such as university students, medical students and surgeons. However there has not yet been an investigation of the use of these medications in the highly competitive and diverse world of finance.

Our survey aims to develop a picture of how these kinds of drugs are used in different sectors of the financial industry, and perceptions of their positive and negative effects. We ask what people might know about the use of smart drugs in their working environment, and what kinds of effects they are thought to have. Different sectors of the financial industry require very different skill sets and approaches to problem solving, so interesting to see if different drugs are more or less frequently seen in these different sectors.

As modern professional workplaces strive to increase their intensity and productivity, and the popular profile of these drugs as treatments for conditions like ADHD increases, it’s not surprising that there is more interest in the use of these drugs by healthy people. And of course, their use raises many ethical questions around issues like competition, perceptions of fairness, and of personal choice. However, these issues cannot begin to be addressed without scientific evidence of their use and effects in the workplace. This survey is one of the first steps in acquiring this evidence.

We would like to invite Professional Planner readers to take part in this research by completing the confidential online survey. The survey has been approved by the University of Melbourne Human Research Ethics Committee, takes only 5 to 10 minutes to complete, and all responses are completely anonymous.



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