We think of racism as "a product of our culture and of ignorance," says Cassie Murdoch at Jezebel. "But silly us, maybe all we really need to do is take a pill." That's what a team of Oxford University researchers concluded after giving volunteers propranolol, a beta blocker commonly used to treat heart disease, and finding that the test subjects who took the drug became less likely to exhibit "subconscious racism." Has science really stumbled upon a pill that can "cure racism"? Here's what you should know:
How was this study conducted?
Experimental psychologist Sylvia Terbeck and her team gave two groups of 18 volunteers either a placebo or a dose of propranolol, then put them through a battery of tests designed to gauge racism, such as matching "positive and negative words and pictures of black and white individuals on a computer screen." More than a third of the propranolol takers scored negative, meaning they showed little subconscious racial bias; none of the placebo-takers scored negative.
What accounts for this effect?
Propranolol, which is also used to treat anxiety and panic, slows the heart rate and a affects a region of the brain called the amygdala, which processes emotions, including fear. The Oxford team posits that racism is tied to fear, so inhibiting the amygdala suppresses racist urges. "Implicit racial bias can occur even in people with a sincere belief in equality," says Terbeck. The drug had no measurable effect on "explicit racial bias."
Is this really a cure for racism?
It certainly "raises the tantalizing possibility that our unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs," says co-author Julian Savulescu. Hold on, says University of Cardiff psychologist Chris Chambers, who urges "extreme caution." "We don't know whether the drug influenced racial attitudes only or whether it altered implicit brain systems more generally."
Are anti-racism drugs in our future?
"Biological research aiming to make people morally better has a dark history," warns Savulescu. But given the number of people taking propranolol already, as well as other drugs that "have 'moral' side effects, we at least need to better understand what these effects are." Translation: "We're still a long way from eliminating prejudice using the miracle of modern medicine," says Jezebel's Murdoch. But hey, "at least now if you notice your cranky old grandpa seems a little less racist since he started taking those new heart meds, you'll know why."