Researchers in Britain have found that a common drug called propranolol does in fact change the hearts of those who take it. While effectively lowering blood pressure in heart disease patients, the medication was found to lower "implicit" racist attitudes as well.
The findings, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, offer new evidence about the processes in the brain that shape implicit racial bias, said Sylvia Terbeck, experimental psychologist and lead author of the study, London's The Telegraph reports. "Implicit racial bias can occur even in people with a sincere belief in equality," Terbeck said.
To gauge the ethical impact of the drug, two groups of 18 white participants were given either the beta-blocker propranolol or a "dummy" placebo pill. Each volunteer was also asked to undertake a "racial Implicit Association Test" (IAT) one to two hours after taking propranolol or the placebo.
In one part of the test, volunteers were asked to sort pictures of black and white faces into categories along with positive and negative words, such as "happy" and "sad."
In another segment, the test-takers were asked to report how "warm" they felt toward certain groups, including black people and Muslims, the New York Daily News explains.
Participants who took propranolol, which is also used to treat anxiety and panic, appeared to be less racially prejudiced at a subconscious level than those treated with the placebo.
"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," Terbeck told The Telegraph.
While researchers believe that the discovery can be explained by the fact that racism is fundamentally founded on fear (a conclusion researchers also made in a 2010 study involving kids), the study's co-author, Julian Savulescu, cautions that propranolol is not a pill to cure racism. "Biological research aiming to make people morally better has a dark history," he said.
Chris Chambers, from the University of Cardiff’s School of Psychology agrees, telling The Telegraph: "We can’t rule out the possibility that the effects were due to the drug incidentally reducing heart rate. In my view these preliminary results are a long way from suggesting that propranolol specifically influences racial attitudes."
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