The Use of Performance-Enhancing Drugs Among Athletes

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Table of Contents

  • The Effect of Social Relations on, and Future Research of, the Use of Performance-Enhancing Drugs Among Athletes
  • Introduction
  • References:

The Effect of Social Relations on, and Future Research of, the Use of Performance-Enhancing Drugs Among Athletes


In sports, the use of performance-enhancing drugs (also called doping) is illegal, and athletic competitors who use it will be disqualified from the competition they are enrolled to. Doping has been reported all the way back to the ancient Olympic games in the third century B.C., which shows that it is not a new phenomenon (Haugen, 2004), and today, many people use enhancement drugs on a daily basis. Some people drink coffee to wake up in the morning, some use dietary food to loose weight and some even use medical fixes to prime themselves, and it is becoming more socially acceptable to do so, whether these substances are prescribed by doctors, obtained through the internet, or purchased as supplements for food (Quintero & Nichter, 2011). As these enhancement drugs and techniques become more socially acceptable, it is interesting to look at these social relations and if they increase the use of enhancement drugs, which also is the main focus of this paper.

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This essay will mainly focus on athletes and their use of performance-enhancement drugs, but it will also mention some other groups to compare their use of enhancement drugs to the athletes. This leads to three research questions that will be answered in this essay:1. What are enhancement drugs and why do people use it?2. Can social relations affect the use of performance-enhancing drugs among athletes?3. Which suggestions can be presented for future research on the subject?What are enhancement drugs and why do people use it?In today’s world, people seem to have an increasing need to improve themselves in different ways. This improvement can be for socially enhancements, if someone wants to reduce their social anxiety, sexually enhancements, or emotional enhancements, if someone wants to heal their depression. Quintero and Nichter (2011) tell us that the use of enhancement drugs is the “practice of strategically consuming drugs in order to better meet life challenges and/or as self-improvement” (p. 343), which can include many different supplements and drugs. When people use enhancement drugs they aim to improve their human characteristics, like appearance and/or physical or mental functioning, and often, the use of these drugs goes beyond what is necessary or “normal” (Hogle, 2005).

Humans have always wanted to improve and modify their bodies through different techniques, and what characterise these techniques is that one’s body and one’s self turns into objects of improvement work, to modify human characteristics and/or functions beyond what the body needs to repair or maintain its health (Hogle, 2005). As enhancement drugs become more and more common, it is likely that a “keeping up” atmosphere can be created, which means that people who are less able need it even more to avoid falling behind (Hogle, 2005). This phenomenon is for example evident in sport medicine, where different factors like the desire to win have made the use of performance-enhancing drugs more common and socially acceptable. Athletes may use anabolic steroids or growth hormones, even though these were first made to treat disease, because of these drugs’ effects on muscle building and stamina (Hogle, 2005). The use of enhancement drugs as anabolic steroids and growth hormones creates an advantage for the people who use it so that they can keep up with, or outperform, other athletes. Situations like these can also be seen in school performance, where students use attention deficit drugs to be able to concentrate better and for longer than usual, and in social situations, where people may use antianxiety drugs to be able to interact with other people with less or completely without anxiety.Humans often want to outperform others, which is a goal in both sport- and school performance, and in athletes’ and students’ minds, the use of enhancement drugs in these situations might feel like rational behaviour (White & Noeun, 2017).

McCabe, Knight, Teter, and Wechsler (2005) found that the fear of not being able to keep up with one’s equals could increase the uptake of drugs. They showed that college students at more academically competitive institutions are more likely to use prescription stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall than students at less academically competitive institutions. People use enhancement drugs to position themselves better in the rankings they make themselves of other peoples’ values and characteristics, but also to be perceived in better ways by others around them, like professors and/or fellow athletes. Can social relations affect the use of performance-enhancing drugs among athletes?There are a few difficulties concerning the analysis of enhancement drugs, as there are many questions that are hard to answer. One common question concerning enhancement techniques is “What is “normal”?”, which implies that “normal” is different for each individual and cannot be defined in a certain way.

Still, what society and people around us consider as “normal” may change the way we think about ourselves and the way we behave. Hogle (2005) argues that “Just as population statistics tell a state what and who is normal, quantifiable laboratory measurements tell individuals if they are normal or in need of medical intervention” (p. 698), which represents how the society, and medical institutions, has an impact on how we feel about ourselves. If a man’s doctor tells him that he is not normal, he will most likely trust in this authority and accept their suggestion of a medical intervention. This can result in people choosing to seek improvement through medical interventions or drugs when they feel abnormal in societies today. This is also the case among athletes in athletic societies. If a man in an athletic society no longer can keep up with the other competitors, he is no longer on the “normal” level, but has fallen behind. Situations like these can influence someone to start using performance-enhancing drugs to reach the “normal” level, especially if they lack personal characteristics like motivation, as competitors usually have a goal of outperforming others (Sattler, Mehlkop, Graeff, & Sauer, 2014).It is still not only personal characteristics and the way a society is comparing a person to others that influence the choice on whether or not to use enhancement drugs. There are also several other social influences that are potential motivators for the use of enhancement drugs.

Research has shown that the social environment one is in may affect the willingness to use enhancement drugs. For example, social pressure and social control can have contagious effects on a person’s thoughts about enhancement drugs; it can push someone to start using it, but it can also punish someone for using drugs by showing social disapproval (Sattler, Mehlkop, Graeff, & Sauer, 2014). Other social factors that may influence ones willingness to use drugs are the learning effect and social suggestions. If a woman learns about a type of enhancement drugs by listening to the pros and cons that her peers presents, these arguments may influence whether or not she wants to use this enhancement drug. It is also believed that social suggestions, like advices from a social network, may influence one’s willingness to use enhancement drugs (Sattler, Mehlkop, Graeff, & Sauer, 2014).A study performed by Gucciardi, Jalleh and Donovan (2010) found that strong social desirability has a moderate effect on doping susceptibility and doping attitudes, which supports the belief that social relations may affect the use of enhancement drugs.

On the other hand, in a study by Sattler, Mehlkop, Graeff and Sauer (2016) it was concluded that the “willingness to use CE-drugs only increased if the magnitude of the enhancement was likely and extraordinary” (p. 11). They found that there were several factors that influenced a person’s willingness to use enhancement drugs, but the willingness to use enhancement drugs is an instrumental behaviour, which makes the use the enhancement drugs a result of rational choice. Wiefferink, Detmar, Coumans, Vogels and Paulussen (2007) studied how social psychological determinants could influence gym users’ use of performance-enhancing drugs. They concluded that there are three social psychological determinants that are highly relevant to a person’s willingness to use performance-enhancing drugs: personal norms, perceived use by others and the users’ beliefs about performance improvement, which suggests that even though there is a social influence, the choice to use enhancement drugs are mostly relied on personal behaviour. Schwerin, Corcoran, LaFleur, Fisher, Patterson and Olrich (1998) found that male bodybuilders, who were displeased with their body and their looks, were more likely to use anabolic steroids than male bodybuilders who were pleased with their own body, which also supports the belief that most use of enhancement drugs are a result of personal choice. Which suggestions can be presented for future research on the subject?

One obstacle in developing intervention, prevention and policies of enhancement drug use is that we do not yet completely understand the potential causes that lead to it (Sattler, Mehlkop, Graeff, & Sauer, 2014). When looking at different studies of enhancement drug use, and the potential causes of this use, the population studied is often only based on one single group of people, and often in western countries. For example, Sattler, Mehlkop, Graeff and Sauer (2014) studied the influence of social environment, personal characteristics and drug characteristics on the willingness to use enhancement drugs, and the population studied were of students only from German universities. Another example, Wiefferink, Detmar, Coumans, Vogels, and Paulussen (2007) who studied the determinants for enhancement drug use among gym users, but the study only took into account gym users in the Netherlands. When looking at studies like these it can be said that more cross-cultural research may be beneficial to the study of potential causes to enhancement drug use. If a researcher was to use cross-cultural research in a study like the use of enhancement drugs, he/she makes an effort to compare an understanding or practice in two (or more) different cultures. It is a complex process that in most cases will need multiple partners in the different cultures to be successful(VanTassel-Baska, 2013), but by comparing cultures, the validation of the research increases and it can help advancing development of intervention, prevention and drug policies in several parts of the world.

Several scholars have underlined that the cultural diversity that research can obtain through cross-cultural research must be taken seriously, as multiple hypotheses about universal patterns and behavioural and psychological diversity can be tested (Jordan & Huber, 2013). ConclusionMany people today use performance-enhancing drugs to improve themselves in different ways, and this is no different for many athletes. The feeling of need to use enhancement drugs may be quite different from athlete to athlete, but it is believed that it often is used as people feel they need it to “keep up” with their athletic equals. The use of this type of drugs becomes more and more socially acceptable in our world today, and studies show that social relations may have an effect on an individual’s willingness to use performance-enhancing drugs, but this willingness is mostly based on the individual’s own rational choice. Even though studies often agree on this, most studies done on the use of performance-enhancing drugs among athletes are only focused on groups in particular areas, mostly western countries, which to some extent decreases the studies’ validity. To strengthen the validity of similar studies, cross-cultural research can be used, which also may help increase the understanding of performance-enhancing drug use in non-western parts of the world that may be quite different. The understanding of cultural diversity is important in most research areas, and this is no different on the performance-enhancing drug use among athletes.


  1. Gucciardi, D., Jalleh, G., & Donovan, R. (2010). Does social desirability influence the relationship between doping attitudes and doping susceptibility in athletes? Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 11(6), pp. 479-486.
  2. Haugen, K. (2004). The Performance-Enhancing Drug Game. Journal of Sports Economics, 5(1), pp. 67-86.
  3. Hogle, L. (2005). Enhancement Technologies and the Body. Annual Review of Anthropology, 34, pp. 695-716.
  4. Jordan, F. & Huber, B. (2013). Evolutionary Approaches to Cross-Cultural Anthropology. Cross-Cultural Research: The Journal of Comparative Social Science, 47(2), pp. 91-101.
  5. McCabe, S., Knight, J., Teter, C. and Wechsler, H. (2005). Non‐medical use of prescription stimulants among US college students: prevalence and correlates from a national survey. Addiction, 100(1), pp. 96-106.
  6. Quintero, G. & Nichter, M. (2011). Generation RX: Anthropological Research on Pharmaceutical Enhancement, Lifestyle Regulation, Self- Medication, and Recreational Drug Use. Chapter 17 from “A Companion to Medical Anthropology”, Wiley-Blackwell, pp. 339-355.
  7. Sattler, S., Mehlkop, G., Graeff, P. & Sauer, C. (2014). Evaluating the drivers of and obstacles to the willingness to use cognitive enhancement drugs: the influence of drug characteristics, social environment, and personal characteristics. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 9.
  8. Schwerin, M., Corcoran, K., LaFleur, B., Fisher, L., Patterson, D. & Olrich, T. (1998). Psychological Predictors of Anabolic Steroid Use: An Exploratory Study. Journal of Child & Adolescent Substance Abuse, 6(2), pp. 57-68.
  9. VanTassel-Baska, J. (2013). The World of Cross-Cultural Research. Journal for the Education of the Gifted, 36(1), pp. 6-18.
  10. White, N. & Noeun, J. (2017). Performance-Enhancing Drug Use in Adolescence. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 11(2), pp. 122-124.
  11. Wiefferink, C. H., Detmar, S. B., Coumans, B., Vogels, T. and Paulussen, T. (2007). Social psychological determinants of the use of performance-enhancing drugs by gym users. Health Education Research, 23(1), pp. 70-80.

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