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The headlines ran along these lines all over the British media – ‘ Blood pressure drug reduces in-built racism’. Everyone was getting worked up following an intriguing study by researchers at Oxford University which found that Propanolol – a frequently prescribed cheap and relatively innocuous drug – when given to white British subjects – significantly reduced their racism levels.

I myself have prescribed propanolol – though not because I thought any of the patients were looking suspiciously at my diplomas hanging above my head in Harley Street, and were instead demanding to see my birth certificate.

It’s a drug doctors like me have prescribed to musicians (some of whom are really quite famous) who get anxious during live public performance when they need something to steady their nerves – and their hands. It can also be prescribed to lower blood pressure, regularise heart rhythm, as well as calm the jittery.

But the really important and interesting aspects of this research, slid by the media unnoticed. And that could be because we still can’t openly talk about racism.

The first point the media ignored, is that the study is in fact kind of suggesting that racism could be biologically wired into our brains. This is because the effect of the drug seems to be to reduce activity in the part of the brain which is activated in the presence of threat. This brain region appears to work even beneath conscious awareness, because we had to react instinctively and quickly in our evolutionary past, if endangered by a predator bounding towards us. This is the same part of the brain that seems to be turned on when members of one race are shown pictures of another, even when the subjects deny being racist. Propanolol was reducing racism levels, the argument goes, because it was switching off or lowering activity in this area of the brain. This means that without the drug, the brain could be said to almost have a natural tendency towards racism.

This is because we could be genetically predisposed to favour people who are more like us and fear or be suspicious of those who are dissimilar. Evolutionary Psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa makes this point in his latest book, out later this month, ‘The Intelligence Paradox’. In it he marshals evidence that our brains evolved to cope with an environment eons ago where we faced hostile tribes and had to routinely fight for survival. This means although the modern world is very different, and we’re supposed to now benefit more from cooperation rather than murder, our brains are playing catch up, and it’s difficult to shake off the legacy of millions of years of evolution. So we instinctively favour and feel more comfortable with people who are more like us, and get uneasy or reject those who are different. This had positive survival value in our ancient past.

In no way is Kanazawa, a lecturer at the London School of Economics, defending racism. Evolutionary Psychologists like him are pointing out that we need to be vigilant for it, because it might be an instinctive default mode for the brain. It is possible to over-ride the tendency our brains have to reject those who are more different from us, using what we have learned, plus logic and rationality. But it’s not that easy. The researchers examining the effect of propanolol used a psychological test called the ‘Implicit Association Test’ which is a sneaky way to get at what people really think. The very fact they were using such a test tells you volumes about psychologists’ pessimism that asking the public directly about racism will elicit truthful answers.

Given this pessimism the experiment uses sophisticated technology which measures how long you take to respond, to the level of thousandths of a second, when the psychologists are checking your response to pictures or words that represent different races. Most people taking the test don’t realise this. They think the experimenters are interested in the actual response being given. But in fact it’s micro-hesitations, that you don’t even notice yourself, which reveal what your really think. This means when you are asked for a response, how long you take even if it’s just a few thousandths of a second longer, reveals the inner brain struggling with the outer conscious socially aware mind, that knows the correct politically correct response is not to say or do anything dodgy or racist.

The same test which gets at how racist you really are no matter how well you are at covering it up, was recently done on almost 300 doctors in the USA, after it was found that white patients are almost twice as likely as black to be prescribed life saving thrombolytic therapy following a heart attack. When asked openly about bias against one race or the other, the doctors denied this. This, after all, is the politically correct thing to do. The IAT test uncovered that, despite what they said, they were significantly likely to be racially biased, and this secret or hidden bias, was linked within each doctor, with a tendency to actively discriminate against black patients when deciding whether to prescribe thrombolysis therapy to patients following a heart attack.

It now looks like you should offer your doctor some propanolol, before they make any decisions about you.


J Gen Intern Med. 2007 Sep;22(9):1231-8. Implicit bias among physicians and its prediction of thrombolysis decisions for black and white patients. Green AR, Carney DR, Pallin DJ, Ngo LH, Raymond KL, Iezzoni LI, Banaji MR. The Disparities Solutions Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard Medical School, 50 Staniford Street, Suite 901, Boston, MA 02114, USA.

Psychopharmacology PUBLISHED ON LINE 28 FEB 2012  Propranolol reduces implicit negative racial bias

Sylvia Terbeck & Guy Kahane & Sarah McTavish &Julian Savulescu & Philip J. Cowen & Miles Hewstone

‘The Intelligence Paradox’ Satoshi Kanazawa, Wiley and Co.

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