A pill to mediate racism? That’s a possibility suggested in a recent study by an Oxford, England, psychologist and a philosopher, on the effect of a beta blocker on subconscious racial prejudices. (A beta blocker is a drug for heart patients that, among other things, blocks the production of adrenaline and moderates the “fight or flight response.”) “Scientists believe the discovery can be explained by the fact that racism is fundamentally founded on fear.” The small number of research subjects means that the findings are far from conclusive, but they open a window to “processes in the brain that shape implicit racial bias.” The study found that the beta blocker called propranolol “significantly reduced implicit but not explicit racial bias.”
Drugs to change social behavior sound Brave New Worldish; fortunately, the scientists who conducted the study understand the ethical implications of their work. Whether or not this research leads to any meaningful and ethical outcomes, the notion that fear and prejudice go hand in hand seems like an important step in finding solutions.
Years ago I heard a pop psychologist speak. She said that the popularity of the movie E.T. was proof that our country was undergoing a transformation away from movie aliens that were strange and nasty toward those that were friendly and kind. This, she said, signaled the beginning of the end of the Cold War and fears of those who were different. I think of her when I see the latest trailer for a movie about evil aliens that bear little resemblance to E.T. E.T. was the beginning and the end of the future she anticipated.
An artist friend told me today that she has artist acquaintances around the world. When she heard about threats from the government of one country where she has a “Facebook friend” to another, where she also has a “Facebook friend,” she thought, No, I have a friend in each of these countries. I don’t want them to get hurt. This suggests that social media may be a route to bringing us closer together, a way to overcome our fears of “the other.”