Heart disease medication: can it really affect subconscious racial bias?

Could drugs temper the unconscious racial attitudes of these men? Flickr/Wyoming_Jackrabbit

A drug used to treat heart disease may have the additional effect of reducing subconscious racial bias, a study has found.

Researchers who gave people the drug propranolol found that they scored much lower on the Implicit Attitude Test into subconscious racial bias than people who took a placebo. The test is a standard gauge for subconscious racial attitudes which requires participants to sort positive and negative words, and black and white faces, into categories.

Importantly, there was no major change in either group’s explicit attitudes to other races.

The sample group was small, however - 36 white student volunteers were sorted into two groups of 18. The first group took a single 40mg dose of propranolol and the second a placebo. Two hours later, all participants took the Implicit Association Test.

Propranolol is typically used to reduce high blood pressure by lowering the heart rate. It is also used for angina and irregular heartbeat, and to manage anxiety and control migraines.

The drug is a beta-blocker that blocks activation in the peripheral “autonomic” nervous system and in the area of the brain implicated in fear or emotional responses. The researchers, at Oxford University, believe the drug reduced implicit racial basis because the bias is based on automatic, non-conscious fear responses.

The results of their research are published in the journal Psychopharmacology.

Sylvia Terbeck, lead author and experimental psychologist at Oxford University, said that the 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.”

Professor Julian Savulescu of Oxford University’s Faculty of Philosophy, a co-author, said the research raised the possibility that unconscious racial attitudes could be modulated using drugs, a possibility that required “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 Chris Chambers, a Senior Research Fellow in the School of Psychology at Cardiff University, urged "extreme caution” when interpreting the findings.

“We don’t know whether the drug influenced racial attitudes only or whether it altered implicit brain systems more generally,” Dr Chambers said. “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.”

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