A new study out of Oxford University on the blood pressure drug propranolol has shown that it may help suppress racist views, according to the Telegraph.
Could racism really be cured with a pill? It's apparently possible, though the concept raises a number of ethical issues.
Propranolol is a common drug currently prescribed to treat conditions like high blood pressure, anxiety, migraines and various heart conditions. It acts as a beta-blocker on the peripheral autonomic nervous system, and has also been shown to effect brain regions that deal with emotional reactions such as those that occur when we are fearful. Researchers got the idea to test propranolol's influence on racial biases because many of these same regions are also known to regulate subconscious attitudes on race.
The small study looked at the responses of 36 white individuals in an "Implicit Association Test" about two hours after half of them took a 20-milligram dose of propranolol and the other half took a placebo. Basically, the test, which is designed to assess a person's subconscious racial attitudes, asks participants to categorize words like joy, evil, happy and glorious, and then to sort the faces of black and white individuals. In the study, people who took propranolol scored significantly lower than those who took a placebo.
"Such research raises the tantalizing possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs, a possibility that requires careful ethical analysis," said Oxford professor Julian Savulescu. "Biological research aiming to make people morally better has a dark history."
Researchers noted that the drug only impacted "subconscious" racism, and may not be effective in changing ingrained opinions or widespread, higher-order cultural attitudes. Even so, the idea that subconscious inclinations can be manufactured with pharmaceuticals is a significant one.
Proceed with caution
Dr. Chris Chambers from Cardiff University's School of Psychology advises that the idea be met with "extreme caution." He also calls into question the reliability of the study's results.
"We don't know whether the drug influenced racial attitudes only or whether it altered implicit brain systems more generally," he said. "And we can't rule out the possibility that the effects were due to the drug incidentally reducing heart rate."
The study was also performed on an incredibly small sample size and included only white people, which raises concerns.
"In my view these preliminary results are a long way from suggesting that propranolol specifically influences racial attitudes," said Chambers.
Regardless of the strength of the study, ethical considerations still linger. Even if propranolol's impact on racial attitudes turns out to be small, the study opens the door for future drugs that may be more effective.