New study into ‘smart drugs’ in the finance industry

Elizabeth Bowman

By

04/08/2017

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 and 10 minutes to complete online.

The research is being jointly led by Dr Carsten Murawski, Professor Peter Bossaerts and me. Murawski and Bossaerts 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. People taking them might be aiming 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 and nicotine, or illicit drugs such as cocaine and 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 the use of these drugs in populations such as university students, medical students and surgeons. However there has not yet been an investigation of their use 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 it would be 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 their use by healthy people. And, of course, their use raises many ethical questions on 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 Investment Magazine 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.

Dr Elizabeth Bowman is a postdoctoral fellow in decision neuroscience in the Brain, Minds and Markets Laboratory in the faculty of business and economics at the University of Melbourne. Her current research looks at how humans make decisions in conditions of risk and uncertainty.