In an unusual study from Oxford University published in the journal Psychopharmacology, scientists appear to have isolated an unusual side-effect in a common heart disease drug – it minimizes racism. Volunteers who took the beta-blocker appears, on a standard psychological test, to be less racist than did those who were given the placebo.
The racism the test looked at was racism at an “implicit” level and what the scientists believe they are showing is that much of racism is based on fear and emotional responses. Beta blockers suppress fear and can also be used to treat anxiety and panic. Experimental psychologist Dr. Sylvia Terbeck from Oxford University said, “We wanted to study the neurobiology of prejudice. 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.”
During the study, two groups of 18 white participants took a “racial Implicit Association Test” one or two hours after they took either the propranolol or the placebo.
The researchers discovered that it took placebo volunteers longer to associate pictures of black people with positive words than it took to associate white people’s faces with positive words.
Professor Terbeck explained to the Mail Online that,
“We think this test reveals what a person feels. It looks at the automatic emotional attitude. We found those who took the placebo had a negative racial emotional bias.”
The results of the study have definitely stirred up controversy. Co-author Professor Julian Savulescu from the Oxford University’s Faculty of Philosophy said that the results raise the “tantalizing possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs, a possibility that requires careful ethical analysis. However, Dr. Chris Chambers, from the University of Cardiff’s School of Psychology, countered that the results need to be viewed with a great deal of caution.
“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.”