What does it mean? A drug that reduces racist reactions.

This article is summarized all over the web now.  I could not get the original article, which is in the Journal "Psychopharmacology".


This from Huffpost:  "Heart Pill Makes People Less Racially Prejudiced".  The researchers  administered a test to evaluate for racist views, with or without taking propranolol.  With propranolol, racial bias reportedly decreased.


Propranolol acts by counteracting the built in "fight or flight response" that occurs in stressful or dangerous situations.  In evolution, it is thought this response increased survival by boosting heart rate and blood pressure, and excitability, for example, so that an ancient person could flee a dangerous animal, and have a life-saving burst of strength and speed.  In modern life, that response in chronic stresses results in higher blood pressure and increased work of the heart, anxiety, and sometimes tremor.  Medications like propranolol are used to help the heart and nervous system "relax" a little to improve healing from heart disease.  The drug is also used for performance anxiety among public speakers and actors, and for treating certain tremors.


What this leads to is, a part of a biological basis for racism.  That basis seems to me centered on fear.  A drug that reduces the effects of fear, also seems to reduce racist responses.  In a sense this is stating the obvious - politicians and various leaders are gifted at manipulating people in xenophobic frenzy, with fear.  Mob behavior would also fit into this scheme.  


Nothing is ever as simple as "It's all genetic" or "It's all biological" or "It's all a social construct".  What I find interesting here is the biological and evolutionary concepts, and social concept, all seem to fit together.


What to do with that information?  Certainly there is no support for forcing racist people to take a drug to make them more accepting.  The idea of "politicopharmacology" is heinous, and such schemes would probably backfire in some unpredictable way.  The concept of "cosmetic psychopharmacology" remains controversial, although use of medications to influence or manage emotional responses is now almost universal in the US.  But if the action of a drug that reduces racist reaction is via fear reduction, then we already know is also relevant:  more interaction, more connection, continue to identify sources of biased imagery and call them out.  When we have a "gut reaction", stopping and asking "why" may lead to different responses than acting quickly on a neurohormonally mediated reaction.

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Nice summary, and I definitely agree with your points about biology vs. social construction. The answer to any nature/nurture debate is nearly invariably "it's both."

I don't know that it would be advisable for most people to use the drug for this specific purpose, even if they wanted to. No drug is selective enough to inhibit the fear response in ONLY situations involving racism. Someone who takes this drug is going to be inhibiting all fear response. As much as fear is unpleasant to experience, and as much as it can lead to socially undesirable behavior like racism, it is also often a very useful emotion. I wonder if fear is more often truly useful or more often exploited by outside forces like the media, politicians, etc. If the latter, I would still advocate for the methods you suggest--countering inflammatory imagery, etc.--instead of excising the entire emotion of fear.

I tried taking propranolol for while, to reduce my stress in work situations.  There are too often high-stress, no-win situations which I can't get out of, and I would get myself into trouble.  Mainly by saying what I was thinking.  I wanted to stay calm and just let it flow around me, Zen-like.  It didn't work for me in the least.  One of the challenges is that propranolol lowers the heart rate and blood pressure, and for me I would have had to take enough, I might have passed out.  Not usually very helpful in those work situations.  Sedatives were not an option - they are highly addictive.  An SSRI such as prozac can reduce the anxiety response, but for me I became so lazy that I got way behind on my work.  So, my forays into cosmetic psychopharmacology were not helpful.  The only approach that seems to help is to discretely rub my thumb against my palm.  I hope no one thinks I am signalling something or playing with myself.  


Most racist people would not want to take something to reduce their racism.  You would have to put it in the water.  Imagine the effect of that on the right-wing-conspiracy fans.

I suppose if the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) defined racism as a mental illness, that would open the possibility of involuntary court ordered administration of a psychotropic medication to get the symptoms under control. But then, prior issues of the DSM listed being gay as a mental disorder, so I'm not overly sold on that idea (in case no one got the tongue-in-cheek sarcasm - the prior diagnostic listing was bullshit!). Fortunately or unfortunately, fear is part and parcel of our biological construct. It's when self-proclaimed leaders, charismatic charlatans, and politicians use it as a means to an end (as we witness every day and have failed to learn from history), where the full and destructive force of that emotion is unleashed in a horrible way. It is both biological and social. Religions control biological desires and needs through the use of social control (fear of various kinds from death to being an outcast) And, the imaginary taboos against certain sexual and dietary practices are a couple of examples of this.  Can't we at least try to come up with a positive social way to control a negative biological emotion?

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