The common heart disease drug, Propranolol, may have the unusual side-effect of combating racism, a new study suggests.
Volunteers given the beta-blocker, used to lower heart rates, scored lower on a standard psychological test of ‘implicit’ racist attitudes.
They appeared to be less racially prejudiced at a subconscious level than another group treated with a ‘dummy’ placebo pill.
Scientists believe the discovery can be explained by the fact that racism is fundamentally founded on fear.
Propranolol acts both on nerve circuits that govern automatic functions such as heart rate, and the part of the brain involved in fear and emotional responses. The drug is also used to treat anxiety and panic.
Experimental psychologist Dr Sylvia Terbeck, from Oxford University, who led the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology, 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.’
Two groups of 18 white participants took part in the study. Each volunteer was asked to undertake a ‘racial Implicit Association Test’ (IAT) one to two hours after taking propranolol or the placebo.
The test involved 140 mini trials where they categorised positive and negative words such as ‘sunshine’ or ‘sad’, and pictures of black and white individuals, on a computer screen.
Differences in the time taken to carry out the tasks provided the basis of the result.
The researchers found it took the placebo volunteers longer to associate a black face with a positive word than it took to link a white face with a positive word.
This was taken as proof they were biased towards being racist at a subconscious level.
However, the time lag disappeared in the group who had taken the beta-blocker.
Professor Terbeck told Mail Online: ‘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.’
Another test showed propranolol had no effect on ‘explicit’ racial prejudice – which was what volunteers ‘truly thought’
Volunteers were asked about their warmth of feeling towards various races and religions on a scale of one to 10, this did not significantly alter between the two groups.
The scientists wrote: ‘The main finding of our study is that propranolol significantly reduced implicit but not explicit racial bias.’
Professor Terbeck said the study did not reveal what the origins of implicit racism were.
‘It’s a very complex attitude so we can’t really speculate on whether a primitive fear of the unfamiliar is involved or the role of upbringing and society on a person’s subconscious,’ she said.
However, the researchers believe the study it raises important ethical and philosophical questions.
Co-author Professor Julian Savulescu, from 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.’
But Dr Chris Chambers, from the University of Cardiff’s School of Psychology, said the results should be viewed with ‘extreme caution’.
He said: ‘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.’
Via Daily Mail