December 7, 2022

Towards a cure for racism?

Can you cure racism with drugs? Probably not, but a common heart disease medication, propranolol, can affect a person’s subconscious attitudes towards race, Oxford University researchers have found. In a study published in Psychopharmacology, researchers gave 18 people the drug propranolol and 18 people a placebo and found that the propranolol group had significantly less subconscious racial bias. There was no significant difference in the groups’ explicit attitudes to other races.

Can you cure racism with drugs? Probably not, but a common heart disease medication, propranolol, can affect a person’s subconscious attitudes towards race, Oxford University researchers have found. In a study published in Psychopharmacology, researchers gave 18 people the drug propranolol and 18 people a placebo and found that the propranolol group had significantly less subconscious racial bias. There was no significant difference in the groups’ explicit attitudes to other races.

Propranolol is a beta-blocker used to treat heart disease that blocks activation in the peripheral ‘autonomic’ nervous system and in the area of the brain implicated in fear or emotional responses. The researchers believe propranolol reduced implicit racial basis because such bias is based on automatic, non-conscious fear responses, which propranolol blocks.

Sylvia Terbeck, lead author and experimental psychologist at Oxford University, said: “Our results offer new evidence about the processes in the brain that shape implicit racial bias. Implicit racial bias can occur even in people with a sincere belief in equality. Given the key role that such implicit attitudes appear to play in discrimination against other ethnic groups, and the widespread use of propranolol for medical purposes, our findings are also of considerable ethical interest.”

Professor Julian Savulescu, an Oxford ethicist with a keen interest in the possibility of making people moral with drugs, was intrigued by the results. “Such research raises the tantalising possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs, a possibility that requires careful ethical analysis. Biological research aiming to make people morally better has a dark history. And propranolol is not a pill to cure racism. But given that many people are already using drugs like propranolol which have ‘moral’ side effects, we at least need to better understand what these effects are.”

But Dr Chris Chambers, of the University of Cardiff, told the Daily Mail that he was sceptical. “’We don’t know whether the drug influenced racial attitudes only or whether it altered implicit brain systems more generally.

And we can’t rule out the possibility that the effects were due to the drug incidentally reducing heart rate. So although interesting, in my view these preliminary results are a long way from suggesting that propranolol specifically influences racial attitudes.”

Michael Cook
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moral enhancement