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Friday, March 09, 2012

Reducing Racial Bias Pharmaceutically

A recent study in the journal Psychopharmacology found that subjects given the drug propranolol (a beta blocker approved by the FDA for treating high blood pressure) demonstrated less implicit racial bias than subjects given a placebo control. One possibility is that propranolol reduces certain fear responses in the amygdala, and these fear responses affect performance on the test of implicit racial bias. Subjects were also tested to see if the drug affected explicit racial bias, though no significant differences were found on this measure between the two groups.

Some caveats: (1) this was a small study that has yet to be replicated; (2) the study tested implicit racial bias using an implicit association test, and one can debate how well such a test measures implicit racial bias (and, more fundamentally, what implicit racial bias really is); (3) propranolol has lots of interesting effects on the body (some of which I've written about), and it would be premature to believe that propranolol has a specific effect on implicit racial attidudes; (4) we don't know whether propranolol would have sustained effects on implicit racial bias or how well, if at all, the findings would apply outside the lab; and so on.

But it is plausible to believe that we have or will someday identify drugs that systematically affect our patterns of beliefs, including perhaps our beliefs associated with racial bias. We may someday confront questions about who can be pressured to use some futuristic "morality pill" as say, a condition of employment, public benefits, or parole. How will our attributions of virtue and vice be affected when a person's actions are partly attributable to the effects of a pill? Don't we already have drugs that do this? (Certainly some drugs of addiction lead to negative behaviors partly attributable to the effects of a pill.) It is easy to dismiss pharmaceutical interventions that raise  A Clockwork Orange alarm bells, but I suspect it is better to recognize that, like all drugs, drugs in this category would have some good uses and some bad ones and may require thoughtful regulation.

Posted by Adam Kolber on March 9, 2012 at 10:17 AM | Permalink

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