Research Shows Propranolol Can Reduce Incidences of Racism By Inhibiting The Fear And Anxiety Associated With It – But Does It Really Address The Underlying Issue?

Earlier this month, a study done by numerous British researchers at Oxford University reached the conclusion that propranolol, a drug normally used to treat common symptoms such as high

Earlier this month, a study done by numerous British researchers at Oxford University reached the conclusion that propranolol, a drug normally used to treat common symptoms such as high blood pressure and anxiety, could also aid in combating unconscious bias. The 36 white male volunteers in the study were given either the propranolol or a placebo and asked to place positive or negative meaning words underneath photos of people of color. For those that took the anti-anxiety drug, the time it took for them to associate black faces to positive words was far quicker than those who were given the placebo, eventually leading researchers to establish that these volunteers were less unconsciously biased than their counterparts while on propranolol.


A closer look at how propranolol actually works shows that the drug alters nerve circuits in the brain that are associated with panic, possibly associating racism with feelings of fear, and specifically fear of the unfamiliar. Even those among us who profess not to be racist may still hold a bias on a particular social group, suggesting that racism may be something that has been socially or even biologically ingrained in our subconscious. Various other studies have also indicated that racism tends to be lessened in individuals who have higher rates of interaction with people from different social groups.

Personally, I believe we all possess some form of unconscious bias whether we choose to recognize it or not. As humans, we fear the unknown.  This fear is visibly manifested in such human constructs as the segregated Chinatowns, suburbs and inner cities we see today.  These semi-closed communities can be viewed as efforts to create spaces where people can be surrounded by community members like themselves and help those people to feel comfortable with what they can outwardly associate with. Interestingly enough, Project Implicit, a collaborative effort between several universities and founded in 1998, has provided sample tests to determine your social cognition. I am particularly interested in the Race IAT (click on the link, then on ‘demonstration’), which appears to be quite similar to the test described as being given to the participants in the above study. While propranolol may be effective in reducing our fear levels associated with different social groups, we should really be taking a look at the root cause of what makes us fearful rather than taking a drug to inhibit those feeling that essentially just ‘cover up’ the problem and does not address the underlying issue.

Say no to racism. Photo by Vectorportal at flickr

Instead of numbing the anxiety response with drugs, we should address the root problem by taking time to think and ask ourselves questions like these:

1) What is the stimulus that is causing us/me to react this way?

2) Is my fear in response to this stimulus warranted or based on unreasoned and habitual thinking (such as bias, prejudice, or racism)?

Once you have answered these questions and recognize social behavioral patterns within yourself, you can then move forward enact a strategy that will help you change these reactions.  Some ways to help you change social patterns or ideas about people from other races include reaching out to meet people from races other than your own, reading articles and paying attention to the subconscious thoughts which you have when interacting with others. Reaching out across racial divides does not have to be something large, it could be something as small as smiling at someone or taking a seat next to a person on the subway that you would normally avoid.  While these are small first steps, they may catalyze further action on your part to challenge yourself and your assumptions.

In conclusion, I believe that if we can rationalize our fear, then we can also make a choice to break down that fear by consciously changing our negative reactions to certain groups of people. As humans one of our greatest gifts is the ability to be self aware and push the boundaries of that awareness so to make our lives and our world a bigger better place. If everyone made small personal efforts like this to better understand their own racism, society as a whole would be progressing towards healing the disease of racism, instead of just anesthetizing the symptoms.


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