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Feeling racist? Blood pressure pill Propranolol may open hearts and minds

Eric Pfeiffer
The Sideshow

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Propranolol (Image via WikiCommons)

A commonly prescribed drug used to treat high blood pressure may have the unintended benefit of muting racist thoughts in those who take it.

A new Oxford University research study found that Propranolol, which works to combat high blood pressure, anxiety, migraines, and a number of heart ailments, affects the same part of the central nervous system that regulates subconscious attitudes on race.

"Implicit racial bias can occur even in people with a sincere belief in equality," said Sylvia Terbeck, lead author of the study, which was published in the journal Psychopharmacology. "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."

Of course, the study is sure to raise concerns both over its validity and whether we should rely on prescription medication to regulate behavior, even for positive outcomes.

As Cardiff University School of Psychology's Dr. Chris Chambers told the Telegraph: "We don't know whether the drug influenced racial attitudes only or whether it altered implicit brain systems more generally. And we can't rule out the possibility that the effects were due to the drug incidentally reducing heart rate."

Another point of concern is the very limited range of subjects used in the test: All 36 participants were white males.

Nonetheless, the study yielded some discussion-worthy results. According to the Telegraph, test subjects who took 40mg of Propranolol scored "significantly lower" on the Harvard University Implicit Association Test, which measures "subtle and spontaneous biased behavior."

Science has had a long and complicated history with race and cultural issues. For example, a 2009 study trained Caucasian test subjects to better recognize the facial features of African-American men with similar characteristics. Early results from that research indicated that the individuals better equipped to differentiate between other individuals of different ethnicity displayed a greater level of racial tolerance. Conversely, the infamous "Little Albert Experiment," which tested conditioned emotional responses in a toddler found that certain negative emotional responses could be learned, and even programmed, over time. And there's the once-popular philosophy of Eugenics, which sought to improve the human race through natural selection. After gaining popularity with the Nazis during World War II, the term has been relegated to more of a political insult than a serious theoretical practice these days.

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