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Few empirical studies in the UK have examined the complex social patterns and values behind quantitative estimates of the prevalence of pharmacological cognitive enhancement (PCE). We conducted a qualitative investigation of the social dynamics and moral attitudes that shape PCE practices among university students in two major metropolitan areas in the UK. Our thematic analysis of eight focus groups (n = 66) suggests a moral ecology that operates within the social infrastructure of the university. We find that PCE resilience among UK university students is mediated by normative and cultural judgments disfavoring competitiveness and prescription drug taking. PCE risk can be augmented by social factors such as soft peer pressure and normalization of enhancement within social and institutional networks. We suggest that moral ecological dynamics should be viewed as key mechanisms of PCE risk and resilience in universities. Effective PCE governance within universities should therefore attend to developing further understanding of the moral ecologies of PCE.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





389 - 403


Adderall, Cognitive enhancement, Ethics, Modafinil, Ritalin, Smart drugs