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By Jonathan Tomlin
Oxford University researchers have discovered that a common heart disease drug may alter subconscious attitudes to race.
Volunteers given propranolol were found to score better on a test of implicit racial attitudes.
The drug, used to lower heart rates, caused participants to appear less prejudiced than those given a placebo.
The test involved two groups of 18 people associating positive or negative words with pictures of black and white individuals.
One group had taken propranolol one or two hours earlier, while the other had taken a placebo.
The results were based on how quickly the participants associated the words with the faces.
Dr Sylvia Terbeck, the psychologist who led the study, said: “Propranolol is not only used for heart conditions, but also works in the brain, in the region of emotional and fear responses. We suspect fear may be involved in some forms of prejudice.
“You usually find that white people are usually quicker when sorting good words to white faces, or bad words to black faces, but with the propranolol group, this did not happen. But overall the groups had the same response.
“Implicit racial bias can occur even in people with a sincere belief in equality. The main finding of our research is that propranolol significantly reduced implicit but not explicit racial bias.”
She added: “It is only a single study, and you would not draw conclusions from one study, but I find it still quite important that a drug can regulate racial prejudice.
“Next you would try to replicate the findings, then see if the effect would persist from long-term clinical treatment, and test other prejudices to see if people behave differently towards other racial groups.”
Dr Guy Kahane, Deputy Director of the Centre for Practical Ethics, who was also part of the study, said: “Our basic finding was that participants who were given propranolol exhibited significantly less racial bias compared to participants who were given only a placebo pill. This was measured through a test called ‘the Implicit Association Test’ (IAT), a standard device for measuring implicit prejudice. There is a lot of work showing that scores on the IAT can predict people’s behaviour in fairly realistic situations.
“In our study, white participants were measured for their implicit bias against black people. Interestingly, we only found an effect on implicit racial prejudice. The drug didn’t affect people’s explicit attitudes towards, for example, black people or homosexuals—what people say when they are explicitly asked how they feel about these groups.”
But he also stressed the limits of this test: “This one study in no way shows that propranolol is a pill that can cure racism. Propranolol affects many processes in the nervous system. Some of these effects might be beneficial, but some aren’t. Propranolol can make you drowsy, slower on some cognitive tasks, and less emotionally responsive, for both better and worse. Still, the nice thing about propranolol is that it’s a safe and familiar drug which is already widely used.
“Even if the effect we found will be fully validated by future research, no one could seriously suggest handing out propranolol to reduce racism—and remember that it anyway doesn’t affect the nastiest forms of explicit racism.
“I suppose a more interesting question is whether it could be used in a more targeted way in contexts where we have reason to think that implicit attitudes may bias decisions—for example in legal contexts when judges or juries are making a decision, or in a hiring committee. I don’t think we are anywhere near giving juries propranolol, but in the longer term, this is the kind of idea we might need to seriously think about.”