Pills for prejudice?

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.”

 My husband’s physician prescribed beta blockers for high blood pressure, which my husband stopped taking because of side effects.  Instead, he hopes to control his blood pressure through strenuous exercise and diet. Physical activity is associated with so many positive physical and emotional benefits. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t need a pill, just a good workout, to control our biases?
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About stillalife

I retired June 30, 2010 after working for 40 years in the field of education and most recently doing school public relations/community outreach in a mid-size urban school district. I wrote for superintendents and school board members. Now I'm writing for me and I hope for you. In this blog, I offer my own views coupled with the latest research on how to preserve our physical and mental health as we age, delve into issues most of us over 50 can relate to like noticing wrinkles and forgetting where we left our keys, discuss the pros and cons of different ways to engage our minds and bodies after we leave the workplace, and throw in an occasional book review, all peppered with a touch of humor, irony, and just plain silliness.
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2 Responses to Pills for prejudice?

  1. Marc Brenman says:

    This sounds highly unlikely. First, tens of millions of Americans are on beta blockers. If taking them had this effect, the total amount of racism in the US would be going down. It isn’t; it’s going up. Look at the recent attacks on Pres. Obama. Second, the theory that racism is based on fear is just one theory. I’ve seen no quality research that shows that unconscious or implicit racism is based on fear. If racism were really based on fear, then there are other avenues available to counteract it.

    • stillalife says:

      I mostly agree. The rise of hate groups in our state and in the nation is terrifying. This research focused on the subtle biases that people who are not overtly racist carry with them.

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