03.13.12

Can the Heart and Blood-Pressure Pill Propranolol Cure Racism?

British researchers found that propranolol, which dials down adrenaline, significantly reduced ‘implicit racial bias,’ but the sample size of 36 people is far too tiny to study this central ethical issue.

A century and a half after the birth of Sigmund Freud, our understanding of human behavior remains at the third-grade level. In one camp are the purists who insist we are as we are because of the long-term toxicity of a lifetime's worth of bumps and grinds delivered by parents and sibs and hostile aunts and mean-spirited teachers. We will call these experts the Freudians.

On the other side are the neurotransmitter and synapse people who see behavior as the simple sum of a million-and-one tiny chemical reactions occurring in our brain. For them, understanding people will fall easily into place as soon as we can construct the correct stoichiometric equation.

For the most part, each camp is content to stay in its bunker and bide its time; there they are surrounded by their own peeps who are ready to assure and coddle and encourage them. The great schism is respected, more or less; sure, an occasional brick is tossed by one into the other’s territory but both groups realize there is comfort in living as different sides of the same coin. Sort of like the American two-party political system.

Once in a while though, a radical Tea Party precept appears that so musses up the rules of engagement that even the most sedate pipe-sucking mandarin must respond. Such a perversion is upon us now in the form of a recent report that suggests a “chill” pill can curb racist attitudes.

Writing in the medical journal Psychopharmacology, British investigators found that a veteran heart and blood pressure pill, propranolol, which acts to lower our fight-or-flight response to anything by dialing down adrenaline production, reduced “implicit racial bias” significantly. They ran their study in 36 white 22-year-old volunteers and distinguished implicit associations from explicit racial prejudice. The implicit kind—seeing something that makes you uncomfortable and reacting with a quickened pulse—was the type “improved” while good, old-fashioned explicit racial prejudice was unchanged. In other words, the drug didn’t make you more tolerant, just less physiologically perturbed about the whole thing.

There is much here to upset a person—first is the voracious uptake of the story across countless media sites, new and old (including this piece). But in a post-Kardashian world (or at least a peri-Kardashian world), this is an old complaint. Stories fly left, right, and center regardless of merit or logic. And by consumer and supplier agreement, no fact, factoid, or truthiness is too small to register. After all, silliness is an equal-opportunity includer.

The drug didn’t make you more tolerant, just less bothered about the whole thing.

What is genuinely troubling here is the collision between shrink-speak and something as volatile and important as racism. We watch as the central ethical issue of mankind is drawn and quartered into simpering distinctions—the implicit, which is distinct from the explicit, which is apparently distinct from cruel human attitude. We read the parched academic tone of an article addressing so emotional and shameful a topic, treating it as if the study subjects were rats in a maze moving toward a food pellet. And we are asked to entrust our understanding of the human soul to results gleaned from studying a handful of 22-year-old volunteers working a day or two to pick up a few bucks (actually 20 pounds—plus travel reimbursement).

The mismatch in scale is staggering. One could commend the investigators for their audacity, their willingness to use Stone Age weapons in their pursuit of knowledge—but this type of step forward is surely not new, as evidenced by the never-ending supply of self-help, self-knowledge, self-empowerment, self-journey bestsellers. These tomes too deploy fishy metrics and wild assumptions from tiny samples to solve the world’s problems—and make a better and stronger you!

One can really only hope that if the twin pincers of amateur speculation and academic inquiry are going to be applied to the pursuit large truth, the purveyors will pause long enough to consider just what they have gotten themselves into. After all, the old-time Freudians and the veteran synapsers acknowledge what they are up against—a near-blind, inch-by-inch scrutiny of tiny scraps of evidence in hopes of finding the tiniest glimpse at something true.

In contrast, introducing the heart of darkness into the hit-and-run Kardashian news cycle (“chill pill curbs racism”) does a disservice not just to the long-suffering scientific community but to the marvelous complexities of the human being. Perhaps the investigators themselves might be advised to take the same chill pill until a more suitable topic presents itself.