Fear, prejudice and pharmaceuticals

3058701116_99e888fd21_oTaboos against giving offence to people from other social groups and cultures are very widespread. Indeed, showing kindness and generosity to strangers could be regarded as an important marker of human civilization.

Social codes that are sometimes bracketed under the heading of “political correctness” actually reflect longstanding conventions about the responsibilities of hosts towards their guests. In many cultures, even your enemies are under your protection when under your roof, and the emergence of the idea of hospitality in early civilizations countered the pre-existing human tendency to be suspicious and even fearful of outsiders.

Vestiges of these less noble inclinations can still be identified by psychologists. Most people would be mortified to be thought racist, and would strive to avoid giving offence on account of another’s cultural or ethnic origin. However, unexpressed biases may still have an effect on our behaviour in certain circumstances.

The Implicit Association Test (IAT) can be used to measure how concepts are organised in our memory. One version of the experiment has found subtle tendencies to regard people from other backgrounds less favourably, even in those who would not dream of expressing or consciously acting on such biases.

Given the strong cultural and personal taboos against racist views and behaviour, do IAT scores tell us anything about explicit xenophobia and its origin? A research project headed by Sylvia Terbeck, now of Plymouth University, made a novel attempt to manipulate implicit attitudes with drugs. Specifically, they used propranolol, a beta-blocker employed in the treatment of both high blood pressure and anxiety, and affecting the activity of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline in the central nervous system.

The experiment, reported in the journal Psychopharmacology, gave half the participants propranolol and half a placebo with no active ingredients. Once the drug had taken effect, the participants – all of white ethnic origin – completed an explicit test of prejudice and a version of the IAT designed to detect implicit racial biases.

There was no difference between the two groups in explicitly expressed racism, with most participants having low scores of prejudice on the basis of race, religion and sexual orientation. The IAT effect was found for the placebo group, with pictures of white faces more strongly associated with positive concepts than pictures of black faces. The key finding, however, is that the IAT effect was greatly reduced in the group dosed with propranolol.

Of course, this experiment does not show that drugs can “cure racism”. There is a clear division between explicitly stated attitudes and implicit biases, and the former did not change after administration of propranolol. However, the findings are suggestive of interesting insights into the origins of xenophobia.

Previous research indicates that implicit prejudice may have a strong emotional component. For example, viewing photographs of people from other ethnic groups has been associated with increased activity in the amygdala. This structure, part of the limbic system, is found deep within the cerebral cortex and is well known to be implicated in the regulation of emotion. The drug used in this experiment, propranolol, affects the function of the amygdala and may diminish adverse emotional states such as fear and aggression.

One plausible interpretation of the mechanism through which propranolol may reduce implicit prejudice is that it lessens fearful or aggressive reactions in response to relatively unfamiliar faces or concepts. The drug affects various biological processes, however, and the papers’ authors also consider additional alternative explanations for the finding.

Finally, the links between implicit bias and explicit racism are yet to be fully understood. It is possible that altering implicit reactions to other ethnic groups could play a role in reducing overt prejudice over time. Given the widespread prescribing of beta-blockers, this is something to consider in future studies of their long-term impact.


Terbeck, S., Kahane, G., McTavish, S., Savulescu, J., Cowen, P.J., & Hewstone, M. (2012). Propranolol reduces implicit negative racial bias. Psychopharmacology, 222, 419-424.

Photo credit: Jason Rogers via cc.

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