Heart medicine reduces implicit racism?

That’s what this study apparently suggests.

In a study published in Psychopharmacology, researchers gave 18 people the drug propranolol and 18 people a placebo and found that the propranolol group scored significantly lower on the Implicit Attitude Test into subconscious racial bias – a standard test for testing subconscious racial attitudes. There was no significant difference in the groups’ explicit attitudes to other races.

Propranolol is a beta-blocker used to treat heart disease that blocks activation in the peripheral ‘autonomic’ nervous system and in the area of the brain implicated in fear or emotional responses. The researchers believe propranolol reduced implicit racial basis because such bias is based on automatic, non-conscious fear responses, which propranolol blocks.

Sylvia Terbeck, lead author and experimental psychologist at Oxford University, said: ‘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.

‘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.’

10 thoughts on “Heart medicine reduces implicit racism?

  1. the authors seem to be interested in this because it raises issues about ‘moral enhancement’. and that is really interesting. but what I find most interesting is that it seems to indicate that bias is a fear response. interesting in its own right, and also surely has implications for how we deal w bias (in non-medical ways). very cool.

  2. My understanding is that the IAT is extremely sensitive to individuals’ variation in general processing time (there are ways to standardize over this, but it’s not clear that they improve the situation on balance). It seems to me that the most basic level of control would involve comparing subjects’ IAT scores on something completely non-race-related, with and without propranolol, to make sure that this is really a race effect, not a general effect of doing the whole test slower (i.e., that would be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for me to accept the authors’ conclusion here). I clicked over to Springer and read the abstract, but not the paper, so I don’t know whether they did this.

    My knowledge about the IAT’s limitations in this regard comes from Blanton and Jaccard 2008. I don’t agree with several of the authors’ critiques of the concept of implicit racism — in fact, I find a few of them profoundly puzzling — but on the IAT I find them convincing.

  3. Cyndi Kernahan is working on the relation of student security (as grounded in a modified “attachment theory”) and their openess to the concept of white priviledge. It is a SOTL project. Her working thesis (at least it was in 2009 when I attended a workshop with her) is that the more securely attached a student is, the more open they are to investigating the realities of social injustice, especially those concerning race. As someone who is interested in mindfulness and how it deals with fears, I think her research shows much promise.

  4. I think that a racism-fear connection has been around for a while with the use of fMRI. On the other hand, I’m not sure all racism has that component, although as I say this, there’s a lot of discourse from whites about how scary other races can be. And there’s a lot of post colonial theorizing that seem to have a similar basis.

    I’m wondering how surprised we should be here. We are propably familiar with the idea that a few drinks can make (some) people more friendly. And people on anti-depressants can be so much more easy to be around. So it isn’t that bias can be affected chemically, but that seeming non-psychological medications could do that. I think this finding might be just the beginning, not just for bias but for more investigation into the psychological effects of ordinary medications.

  5. J– I moved your comment to the cave painting post, since I’m pretty sure that’s where it was meant to be.

  6. Thanks Jender. You are correct. Don’t know how that happened. Perhaps a caffeine deficiency…

  7. Filbow666, I didn’t remove your comment, but I can tell you that in general we remove comments that violate our policies. The main imperative is “be nice.”. In addition to removing snide, demeaning remarks, we do not provide a forum for racist, sexist remarks, or other kinds biogoted remarks against persons who are marginalized.

  8. Thank you for replying to me Annejjacobson, I certainly did not want my comments to appear racist, sexist, bigoted, snide, or demeaning I merely answered with how I feel.and I quoted facts, This lady did only use white people for her studies, two groups of eighteen in fact, also this research has been questioned by other people in the field of Psyhcology, she has no apparent plans to undertake studies on a cross section of society thereby giving the research weight and credibility, I feel that professional people should not sensationalise any research undertaken in order to gain recognition of any kind, positive or negative.
    If this study had led with the headline, ” Fear is the root of all prejudice” – A fact that we all know- then it would not have provoked such a reaction,then if you spin the facts into a headline such as the one used followed by television appearances where you provide very little facts but gereralisations coupled with the admittance that only white people were used in the study then you create the platform for this apparent suggestion to be taken literally. eg “We accidently discovered that white people who are on medication for a particular illnes are less inclined to be racist”
    I think the accusations that you typed in your reply are unfair, but I respect them as it was your opinion, I still question this waste of taxpayers money, furthermore if research isn’t questioned mistakes cannot be rectified, or conclusions refined to reflect changing attitudes in society and it will pass into the public domain as received wisdom, this I feel is even worse news for any community workers, or individuals that have been at the forefront of combating racism for years, if you do not recognise that people can harbour an opinion that differs from yours or others then maybe it’s you that are snide, demeaning, sexist, and bigoted, shame because I thought that you were for toleration? I am not a sheep, I make up my own mind and feel that the research was flawed, how would you react if a study was undertaken regarding women but only Blondes were included and afterwards the author presented these findings as proof of implicit behaviour that existed in all women?
    Sound familiar.

  9. This is ridiculous! “Implicit racism” can be behaviourally manipulated – there’s research labs around the world that have done that – so why is this discovery being acknowledged to such an extent when behavioural techniques can attain the same goals in 1) less time 2) more cheaply and 3) non-invasively?

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