Heart patients who take the drug propranolol — a beta-blocker used to treat heart disease — may become less racist on a subconscious level, according to a team of ethicists, psychiatrists and psychologists at Oxford University.
For the study, 18 people took the drug propranolol and 18 people took a placebo. Researchers found that those taking propranolol scored far lower on the Implicit Attitude Test, a standard test for measuring subconscious attitudes toward race. However, there was no significant difference between the two groups in their explicit attitudes toward other races.
Specifically, the drug blocks activation in the peripheral ‘autonomic’ nervous system as well as in the area of the brain responsible for fear and emotional responses. The researchers suggest that propranolol was able to minimize unspoken racial basis because such bias is based on automatic, non-conscious fear responses, which propranolol blocks.
“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,” said Sylvia Terbeck, lead author and experimental psychologist at Oxford University.
“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.”
“Many people with medical conditions are probably already on drugs which affect subconscious bias and more research is needed into how drugs which affect our nervous system affect our moral attitudes and practices,” she added.
Professor Julian Savulescu of Oxford University’s Faculty of Philosophy said, “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.”
The study is published in Psychopharmacology.
Source: University of Oxford