A widely used drug for heart disease appears to affect a person’s subconscious levels of racism, a team of ethicists, psychiatrists and psychologists has found.
The Oxford University researchers gave 18 people the drug propranolol and 18 a placebo. And they found that the propranolol group scored significantly lower on the Implicit Attitude Test into subconscious racial bias – a standard test for testing subconscious racial attitudes.
The effect was purely subconscious – there was no significant difference in the groups’ explicit attitudes to other races.
The beta-blocker propranolol, used to treat heart disease, blocks activation in the peripheral autonomic nervous system and in the area of the brain implicated in fear or emotional responses.
The researchers believe it cuts racial bias because it blocks the such automatic, non-conscious fear responses on which racism is based.
“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,” says experimental psychologist Sylvia Terbeck.
“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.”
The team points out that many people are already taking propranolol, and therefore presumably experiencing less subconscious racism as a result.
So should we be giving the drug to people convicted of hate crimes? Probably not, says philosophy professor Julian Savulescu.
“Such research raises the tantalising possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs, a possibility that requires careful ethical analysis,” he says.
“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.”