Drug use as performance enhancement
Centre for Social Research on Alcohol and Drugs
Almost all psychoactive substances and other drugs which humans knowingly consume are at least some of the time and in some way performance enhancing. I mean “performance enhancing” in two main senses: in terms of an improvement on what the actor could do without the enhancement, and also in the more social sense of how well the actor performs in front of and with reference to others.
There are, of course, a variety of aspects of being and acting in which humans seek to enhance their performance. We seek ways to go farther or faster, to be smarter or quicker, to be more attractive or sexier, to be thinner or stronger, to be spaced out or alert, to be happier or less depressed, to engage with others or to disengage -- this by no means exhausts the ways in which we seek to enhance one or another kind of performance.
Much of the discretionary spending in affluent societies is on performance enhancement in this broad sense: we pay for a set of wheels instead of relying on our feet, we subscribe to a gym to work out in, and of course we take drugs like coffee and alcoholic beverages for various purposes, including to be sociable and to affect our mood and alertness. To a considerable extent, the consumer economy runs on our desires and beliefs about the ability of machines or substances to enhance one or another of our various performances.
“Performance enhancement” as a term tends to be used primarily in the first sense I have mentioned – in the sense of improving what the actor could do without the enhancement. This is the primary meaning intended, for instance, when sports doping is described in terms of performance enhancement. The use of amphetamines, or coffee, or cigarettes to increase alertness and to sustain mental functioning are other examples of this self-oriented and instrumental action. Various drugs can be used for other purposes instrumentally in this individualistic way – as when someone tells us that their reason for drinking or drug use is “to get high” or “to forget everything”. We do not usually think of this in terms of “performance enhancement”; from the perspective of the drinker or drug user, however, this may be exactly what is being accomplished.
The second meaning of “performance enhancement” gets less play, but is at least as important in our use of drugs. Most use of drugs occurs in social settings, that is, in front of an audience of others. The fact of the drug use is itself a part of the user’s performance in that moment. The performance may be quite conscious, and intended to make a point. Think of the teenager ostentatiously lighting a cigarette to make a claim of emancipation and sophistication. Or the performance may be semiconscious or unconscious. Sixty years ago, Mass Observation (1943) noted the way in which drinkers in English pubs automatically matched their drinking sip for sip, and more recently experimental social psychologists have shown that a person’s drinking speed can be varied by varying the drinking of a confederate drinking with them (DeRicco, 1978; Becotte, 1988).
Often, the drug use itself becomes part of the social interaction. Each drug tends to have its own social rituals associated with it, into which the participants in an interaction easily slide, and which help to form the action and the occasion. For alcohol, common social rituals revolve around offering the drink or offering to buy it, around offering a toast, and around rituals of draining the glass. As an example for another drug, a recent observational study of cocaine use among students in the American midwest emphasized the drawn-out nature of the rituals which surrounded cooking up the “crack” and then consuming it (Jackson-Jacobs, 2001).
We take great care with our performance on these occasions of social use of drugs. In the first place, the drinker or smoker or drug user demonstrates their familiarity with the special lore that surrounds the particular drug or form of the drug. Wine is perhaps an extreme case of this; knowing one’s way around a wine list and being able to use convincing language about the qualities of the wine as it is tasted is a performance that offers a potentially impressive display of cultural capital. There are also stores of cultural capital surrounding other drugs, which cigar devotees, cannabis “heads”, and aficionados of each drug can display.
In the second place, the drug use often becomes a marker and punctuation of the action. Studies of the presentation of drinking in drama, for instance, have noticed how useful for playwrights the “stage business” surrounding the drug use often is. In life as in art, getting up to get a drink or lighting a cigarette become convenient punctuation points that mark the end of an interchange.
In the third place, the
rituals around offering a smoke or drink are often a conventional code for
other meanings. Again, analysts of
fictional portrayals have emphasized the wide variety of meanings that are
conveyed by the use of alcohol (
There is nothing specific to the psychoactive nature of drugs about these aspects of their role in enhancement of social performance. In principle, a soft drink or a meal could serve each of the functions we have discussed. But by their nature, there are other ways in which psychoactive substances enhance performance. Many such substances are defined as having an element of danger or unpredictability in their effects. Where this is the case, an aura of mystery or excitement is lent to the action and to the actors. The scene and the action becomes potentially consequential, set apart from the everyday passage of time. By the fact of their illegality, illicit drugs automatically are given a frisson of consequentiality: it is mostly because of the drug’s illegality that smoking a joint of cannabis might be defined as a risky and consequential act.
Potential consequentiality is not involved with psychoactive substances which have become banalized, a part of the mundane everyday. Thus in our cultures and time coffee or chocolate have little of the aura of consequentiality. For many years, cigarettes lacked the aura, though they may be regaining it. In a southern European wine culture, wine often also has this banalized quality, just a part of the everyday family mealtime.
One of the potential consequences of using many psychoactive substances is that the user will lose control of his or her behaviour in the moment. If a person drinks too much, their social performance may be spoiled. Their speech may become slurred, they may forget not to scratch their privates, and they may throw up on their host’s rug. Apart from their presentation of self, they may misread or ignore the social cues in the occasion and force an embarrassing confrontation, or take offense at a comment and start a fight.
Precisely because of the potential of the drug to precipitate loss of control in the moment, successful resistance to these potential effects becomes a part of the performance. Jackson-Jacobs’ student crack users made a great deal of their ability to maintain control. Given their perception that using cocaine inherently made one want to use any supply all up in the occasion, it became a point of pride not to do so (Jackson-Jacobs, forthcoming). Likewise, to be able to “hold one’s liquor” is an admired quality; Gusfield talks of the serious drinker’s ideal of the “competent drinker” (Gusfield, 1996). In many circumstances involving drinking, maintaining the appearance of acting “normally” becomes part of the performative accomplishment. However, in a situation where all are drinking, the definition of “normality” is likely to have slipped. Norms for behaviour while drinking may indeed differ from norms while sober, but, in the formulation of MacAndrew and Edgerton (1969), behaviour is still mostly “within limits”.
There is, of course, an alternative choice of performance, which is to make a great play of the effects of the drug. To be visibly intoxicated or high is to be unpredictable and potentially out of control, which potentially gives the intoxicated person power in the situation they would not otherwise have. Often, indeed, such a choice is a recourse of the relatively powerless, who may on occasion feign intoxication (Room, 2001); or it may be resorted to as a legitimation of the expression of force which would otherwise be questionable (Room, 1980).
The alternative of dionysiac drug use and behaviour has a special history in bohemian and artistic communities in western literary and artistic life of the last 200 years, but has also often been a feature of more general youth cultures.
We can illustrate the interplay
of these different aspects of a drug’s role in enhancing the performance by
considering the place of alcohol in the rituals of courtship among mideel-class
adults in places like
Suppose that a man and a women in their 30s, both unattached and heterosexual, meet at an afternoon concert. They know each other, but have not been out before. At the concert, he suggests that they have a drink together afterward. This is a bid to continue the occasion in another public place, which means no further commitment is involved. On the other hand, the suggestion for a drink rather than a cup of coffee or a snack already carries a slight tinge of consequentiality. If the woman wanted to signal quite clearly that she did not want anything more than a conversation, she might suggest going for a cup of coffee instead.
The choice of
tavern itself send a signal about the chooser. Abrahamson (1999:ii)
notes, in a study of bargoing in
At the tavern, the man orders a drink for each, asking her what she wants; she allows him to pay. The choice of drink by each party is a part of their impression management, sending a signal about what kind of person each is. For the woman to order a beer, for instance, would send a rather different signal from ordering a kir; ordering a double scotch on the rocks or a Singapore Sling would give yet other impressions.
The bartender asks if they want a second drink. The man says “yes” and turns to the woman. If she declines a drink, even if she orders a coffee, it is a signal that the occasion is ending. If she says “I’ll pay for this round”, she is sending a signal that the relationship is on a basis of reciprocity and equality, and leaves open the question of the occasion’s ending. If she allows him to buy the second round, it may already be taken as a signal of potential sexual availability.
After a while, one or the other of the pair suggests going on to dinner. Again, there is a chance to demonstrate sophistication by choices around alcohol. As a male Canadian put it in Ferris’ (1997) study of courtship and drinking,
I find if you can go into a restaurant or a bar or something like that and know what to order, … when your date doesn’t, it enhances your reputation, you might say, as a sophisticated man of the world.
As they look at their menus, the issue of what to drink with dinner comes up. The man proposes wine. As another male told Ferris (1997),
As far as having a glass of wine with [dinner], that does help, and that was something I would sort of premeditate, to create an environment.
Let us say, however, that the man proposes ordering a whole bottle. The woman can decline to drink any alcohol with dinner, but she probably needs to offer an explanation, or she will be seen as prudish, and the refusal will be seen as a signal of shutting down the evening. Or she can say, “why don’t we each just order a glass?”, keeping the options open – after all, more glasses can always be ordered. If she accepts that a bottle will be ordered, this is a clear signal that the whole evening will be spent together, and in many milieux there is a clear possibility that they will end up in bed.
After dinner, one may invite the other back to their apartment for “a nightcap”. Drinking continues to play a role in the performances and in the signalling of intentions. Thus, a male Norwegian tells the story of a night out in Træen and Hovland’s study (1998):
She took the initiative to continue the party at her place. The others were supposed to come as well, but suddenly they disappeared. So I thought, why not?…. We waited for the others and had a glass of wine. As they didn’t show up, we started kissing and touching each other. We did that for an hour, and then she told me she wanted to go to bed. I said, ‘I’d better get home’, but she didn’t want me to.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, each partner will be conscious of their self-presentation in terms of their drinking. The drinking is often a self-conscious part of their self-presentation. As a male Canadian told Ferris (1997),
Basically, I’m more myself when I’ve had a drink…. And in that sense I would then think that I would be more attractive to people.
But, as another male Canadian put it,
certainly you don’t want to drink too much, ‘cause then you just make a fool of yourself. I would say, probably, for me it would be something like three or four [drinks], enough to relax yourself. Enough to make yourself not care about being rejected or being turned down, but not so much that you’re not too coherent and out of control of your actions.
In the meantime, each member of the dyad will also be evaluating the other in terms of their drinking performance. If this informant “made a fool of himself”, there may be someone who finds him fun, but he is probably more likely to be rejected. A male Canadian offered such an evaluation as part of his account of an evening (Ferris, 1997):
For women, it seems, a part of the evaluation is whether they will be able to control the situation, and in particular to control whether sex occurs (de Crespigny et al., 1999). A female Canadian informant told Ferris (1997):
If I’ve been going out with somebody two weeks and I have a drink and I feel nice and things are relaxed and stuff, I know that guard is still up in the back of my mind, that hey, I have to control the situation, and that’s not what I want yet.
For the drinker, the drinking may also figure in the retrospective self-evaluation of one’s own performance, often serving as an excuse:
This is what alcohol can do to you, you become careless…. I’ve often said to myself afterwards, “God, I would never have done that if I had been sober”. (Træen and Hovland, 1999).
Thus far we have considered only dyads, that is, the drinker or drug user’s performance for an audience of one, considering the specific situation of present-day courtship customs. But the performance enhanced by drinking or drugs is commonly before a larger audience.
There is first of all the drug-using or drinking group. In the extensive qualitative literature on observations of the drinking group in pubs, cafes, and other public places, there is much emphasis on the drinking group as a locus of sociability, where people converse, tell stories, sing and generally “carry on” in each other’s company. Drinking itself, Partanen (1991) has argued, is a "medium of sociability" -- often, indeed, it is "a form of communion, a commensal sharing in which persons who participate are stripped of the capacities in terms of which they interact in [non-drinking] contexts" (Karp, 1980:104). The rituals of sharing, reciprocity and turn-taking which are frequently part of the drinking occasion are a collective performance with which the participants construct and symbolize at least a temporary solidarity. The drinker may be performing to an audience which have known each other for years, or to an audience which have met that very night; often both of these audiences will be present.
How the drinker behaves and carries off his or her drinking is a performance which is noted by others. In English-speaking lands, for instance, the custom of buying rounds imposes expectations on male drinkers in a group, in particular, which are closely watched. The drinker whose turn it is to buy next should not lag behind others in draining his glass, for instance. It will certainly be noted an commented on adversely if a drinker suddenly calls to mind that he has to leave before his turn to buy comes up. Likewise, what is said and done while drinking is attended to – as the frequency of fights between drinking companions suggests.
For adolescents, the solidarity of the drinking group, like the drug-using group, has some extra reinforcements. Both are primarily part of the sphere of sociability, as opposed to the spheres of school and home. The latter spheres are adult-controlled, while adult attempts to control the sphere of sociability frequently fall short of full success. Control of the sphere of sociability is, indeed, a matter for contest between adolescents and their parents and other adults. Adults fear for the effects of present behaviour on the adolescent's future, and fight a long rearguard action against what are seen as premature claims to adult status. Adolescents, on the other hand, fight for the authenticity of their existential present, against adult definitions of them in terms of their future, and stake escalating claims for adult status. Drinking forms a wonderful symbolic arena for these contests: not only is it a potentially hazardous behavior, but it also constitutes by legal definition a claim of adulthood. The solidarity of the adolescent drinking group is thus reinforced by its status as a collective offensive action in the struggle of the generations. Where the drinking or drug use is illegal, solidarity is also increased by the need for collective planning and boundary-maintenance against police and other legal intervention.
Often drinking or drug use becomes a marker of group membership. “You’re known for either doing that sort of stuff and being in that crowd … or you’re not”, said one high school informant in Ontario about marijuana use; on that basis, “people will always know you as a partier” or as a “square” (Warner et al., 1999). “It’s the cool people you know that do it”, another informant added, “and if you want to be like them you have to do it”.
While there is much emphasis in the observational literature on the solidarity of the drinking or drug-using group, there is less attention to the fact that the drinking or drug-using group excludes as well as includes. The performance of the group is frequently staged not only for its participants. In noting that the drinking group excludes as well as includes (e.g., Cavan, 1966:216-233), ethnographers have pointed out that the excluded are often an audience for the performance. The collective drinking performance may indeed be an instrument of differentiation from other social groups or sometimes of aggression against the audience (e.g., Burns, 1980; Moore, 1990).
Collective drinking performances may also take on a broader societal significance. Ostensive drinking or drug use may serve as a symbol of differentiation and indeed defiance across general cultural boundaries, as Stivers (1976) and Lurie (1971) have argued for specific ethnic groups in American society. In particular, ostensive drinking or drug use can serve as a convenient symbol of generational rebellion for a particular youth cohort. Thus, in the context of U.S. Prohibition, heavy drinking was a particularly apposite "symbol of liberation" (Fass, 1977) for the generational revolt of the college students of the 1920s against what they defined as "Victorian morality". Similarly, in recent decades, lighting up a cannabis joint in front of a police station would be a performance directed not only at admiring comrades but also at the disapproving others.
We have emphasized the public
and performative nature of much drinking and drug use, and indeed of much
intoxication. But there is also a hidden
and elusive side to it. Many people who
enjoy getting drunk once in a while have great difficulty admitting this. In fact, in our survey work in the
If we think of ourselves and our everyday lives as having a public face and a private face, then occasions of intoxication or being high belong on the private side of the divide. To view the drinking occasion as “time out”, in the phrase of Cavan (1966) and MacAndrew and Edgerton (1969), is to imply that what goes on in the drinking occasion does not “count” in ordinary life; the virtual video recorder of our public lives is turned off. Similarly, clubbing and raving are viewed by the informants in a cross-European study of recreational drug culture (Calafat et al., 2001:91) as “a time in which the established order is broken down”.
Often, then, the performance is for the moment,
and in the moment. In many
circumstances, it is breaking the bounds of politeness to refer next morning to
behaviour the night before in any but the most general of terms (as Gusfield
(1996) notes, spouses have a unique license to break this kind of bound). It is somehow considered unfair to bring the
matter up in public discourse. In this
regard, it was interesting to read the British press coverage and commentary on
Euan Blair’s intoxicated performance in
To some extent, then, the intoxicated performance becomes socially invisible. It becomes part of the private side of ourselves, along with a variety of other behaviours seen or known only to family members, if by anyone at all – such matters as our bodily functions and sexual activity and whether and how we snore. It is worth thinking for a moment about what makes these functions and activities so private. Part of it is that they are times when we are not in moment-to-moment control of our demeanour and performance. A sleeper is neither performing socially nor in control of his or her self-presentation. Perhaps it is the relinquishing of moment-to-moment self-control which is at the heart of what we mean by intoxication which gives intoxicated occasions and behaviour their claim to privacy.
Often drinkers and drug users also have the sense the intoxicated self is our true self, one which has cast off all the role-playing of our public life. “By using drugs people become more spontaneous and open with each other”, a Dutch informant told the cross-European study (Calafat et al., 2001:44) . “At weekends I am me. On other days I’m a character I’m asked to play and that I haven’t chosen”, a French informant adds (Calafat et al., 2001:99).
This sense that matters of intoxication belong on the private and personal side means that they are to some extent insulated from serious public discourse. As is true also for sexual behaviour, the sense that these are private matters offers a substantial stumbling-block to rationalistic public-health approaches to reducing alcohol-related harms. Even for the alcoholic beverage industry, or perhaps especially for them, the idea that intoxication can be fun is a forbidden thought in their public relations efforts. Despite its title, there is little mention in the industry-financed volume, Alcohol and Pleasure (Peele and Grant, 1999), of the pleasures of intoxication. Instead, “intoxication” appears mostly as a “harm” in some way identified with alcohol controls being too stringent.
On the other hand, like sexuality and much else that is private in everyday life, intoxication and drug use flourish in fiction. To find public arguments in favour of intoxication as fun or life-enhancing, one must go to Baudelaire (or a Eugene O’Neill character quoting him), to rock music lyrics, or to fictional characters and portrayals.
But pulling against this sense of privacy surrounding the intoxicated occasion are two of its obvious characteristics. In the first place, as we have noted, it is potentially consequential. One way or another – whether because of drinking driving, public nuisance, or the illicitness of drugs -- the occasion is often against the law, and the police may intervene to make sure there is a consequence. Consequentiality – the risk of an accident or violence, or of an irreparable break in a relationship – is also invited by the clumsiness and misperception of the social and physical context which are part of intoxication. In the second place, the intoxicated occasion is not usually hidden away in the bathroom or the bedroom; it is commonly a public or semi-public performance. These conflicting social norms make for wrenching transitions, where an off-the-record drunken “time out” is suddenly extremely public, with the participants transfixed like a deer in headlights.
“All the world’s a stage”, the playwright proposes, anticipating Erving Goffman by a few centuries. And one man in his time indeed plays many parts. Only some of them involve intoxication or being high. For some players – a minority – such parts become their major repertoire. What we call “addiction” usually builds up from enjoying the performance of intoxication, or “feeling normal” in that role.
The approach I have taken has been from the perspective of drug use as performance enhancement. And I have emphasized that performance enhancement has two sides. One is the side we are referring to when we talk of steroids enhancing the performance of an shotputter, and that is also in play when someone is taking drugs just because it feels good or euphoric, or for that matter because it relieves pain.
It is the other side of performance enhancement that I have emphasized today – that drinking and drug use typically are social behaviours, and that therefore the drinker or drug suer is performing in front of an audience, whether intimate – as in courtship – or large – as in Leicester Square.
From the point of view of research, if we want to understand the dynamics of drinking and drug use, we need to understand this side of use and intoxication. I have noted that intoxication seems to be defined as a private rather than a public matter. This may mean that it is difficult to study it through survey research questions, since our answers to the precoded questions of the typical survey tend to be formed by our more public face. More of the elusive nature of our definitions and perceptions of intoxication may be gained from qualitative interviews and observational studies. Fictional representations also have much to teach us.
From the perspective of public health and policy, the broad concept of performance enhancement reminds us that for most users there are positive aspects to drug use at all stages in the drug-using career. There is a need for research oriented to public health and prevention to pay attention to these positive aspects, as they are experienced by the user. A knowledge only of the negative consequences will cripple the efforts of those planning prevention and intervention.
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Drug use as performance enhancement
Almost all drugs are performance-enhancing
Performance enhancing =
1. improved action/state; and/or
2. how well the actor performs in front of others
multiple facets of performance to be enhanced:
going farther or faster
being smarter or quicker
being more attractive or sexier
being thinner or stronger
being spaced out or alert
being happier or less depressed
engaging with others or disengaging
The consumer economy runs to a considerable extent on our desires and beliefs about the ability of machines and substances to enhance our performances
The drug use itself as conscious or unconscious performance
Drug use as part of the social interaction; the rituals of use
Aspects of the performance:
Knowledge about alcohol/drugs as social capital to be displayed
Use as a marker and punctuation of action
Rituals of use as a conventional code for other meanings
How drugs differ from a soft drink or meal as enhancement of social performance: consequentiality® mystery or excitement
Element of danger and unpredictability
Illegality of illicit drugs
One potential consequence: losing self-control in the moment
So successful self-control becomes part of the performance:
Gusfield’s “competent drinker”
“Acting normally” as a performative accomplishment
The norms are changed for intoxicated behaviour, but behaviour must still be “within limits”
The alternative performance: dionysiac drug use and behaviour – making a great play of the drug effects
Alcohol and the other: the performances of courtship
A man and a woman meet at an afternoon concert
He suggests a drink afterward:
In a public place, so no commitments
Woman’s response choices:
Agree ® options open
Coffee instead ® the conversation will be all
Choice of tavern as a status & cultural marker
Choice of drink by each as a marker
Second drink: woman’s response choices:
Yes, allows him to pay ® he may then have expectations
Yes, but “I’ll pay for this round” ® reciprocity & equality, options open
No or soft drink ® occasion is ending
One or another suggests dinner:
Choice of restaurant and drinks during dinner as status and cultural markers
“Let’s order a bottle of wine, shall we?” Woman’s response choices:
Yes ® evening will be spent together, possibly ending up in same bed
“Why don’t we each just order a glass?” ® options open
“Actually, I don’t want any more to drink” ® dinner will be the end of the occasion
Back to man’s or woman’s apartment for “a nightcap”:
Drinking or not, & how much, still conveys signals
Stereotyped gender roles:
The man wants to woman to drink (but not too much?), so she will be sexually available
The woman views the drinking in the light of her desire to control the situation, and her choices about sexuality
The drinking and drug-using group:
1. Solidarity and inclusion
Locus of sociability: “a form of communion, a commensal sharing”
But performances continually evaluated: e.g., behaviour with respect to buying rounds
The special solidarity of the adolescent group: drinking and drug use as a claim on adulthood
Drinking/drug use as a marker of group membership
2. Boundary maintenance and the external audience
The drinking group excludes as well as includes
Often a performance in front of the excluded
Collective drinking/drug use performances as symbols of differentiation or rebellion:
Irish-Americans (Stivers), Native Americans (Lurie)
The college student cultural revolutions of the 1920s, 1960s/1970s
The semi-visibility of the intoxicated performance
Public and performative, but also hidden and elusive
Drinking as “time out” ® the drinking occasion does not “count”; the performance is counted as private
So matters of intoxication belong on the private and personal side ®
A stumbling block for rationalistic public health approaches to prevention and harm minimization
The idea that intoxication and drug use are fun flourishes only in fiction, rock music lyrics, poetry
The clash between this idea that intoxication is private and:
That it is not hidden away, but often public;
That it is consequential
For research: We need to study what people get from intoxication, and understand the performances involved in intoxication, if we want to understand the dynamics of drinking and drug use
For public health and policy: “Performance enhancement” reminds us that there are positive aspects of drug use for users. Research on this side as well as on negative consequences is needed for effective prevention and intervention.
 Prepared as a plenary presentation at a conference, ”Figuring Addictions/Rethinking Consumption”, at the Institute for Cultural Research, Lancaster University, Lancaster, UK, 4-5 April 2002.