Media outlets around the world reported yesterday that a pill can make people less racist.
Is this for real?
The answer is less racy – and less raced – but actually more interesting than the headlines suggest.
Researchers at the Oxford University Centre for Practical Ethics, led by Sylvia Terbeck, administered a common blood-pressure lowering drug, called propranolol, to half of a group of white subjects and a placebo to the other half. (Read the study’s press release here and the research paper here) The subjects then took a test that measures “implicit associations” – the rapid, automatic good/bad, scary/safe judgments we all make in a fraction of a second when we look at words and pictures. The subjects who took the drug showed less of an automatic fear response to images of black people’s faces and were less likely to associate pictures of black people with negative words than the subjects who did not take the drug. Based on the study’s design, it is likely that results would be the same in trials involving racism by and against other racial and ethnic groups.
This looks like the pill treated racism in the research subjects. But this isn’t so.
Researchers have long known that propranolol has a range of effects that include lethargy, sedation, and reductions in several kinds of brain activity. In high-flown medical parlance, this drug makes people really chilled out. I know: I’ve been on propranolol myself (unsuccessfully) for migraine prevention. When I was on the drug, my biggest fear was falling asleep at work – and even that didn’t stress me as much as it should have.
Because propranolol muffles fear generally, it reduces automatic negative responses to just about anything. Propranolol has been used to treat everything from “uncontrolled rage” to performance anxiety and is being explored for treating PTSD. Very recent research shows that it generally reduces activity in the brain region called the amygdala (more on that, below).
But the study remains interesting and important for a few reasons. This is the first study to show that inhibiting activity in the amygdala, which is crucially involved in fear learning, directly reduces one measure of race bias. This validates extensive research that has correlated race bias with heightened activity in that brain region. (Although some contrary research also challenges the association.) So this study helps support the idea of a causal relationship between automatic or pre-conscious race bias and conditioned fear learning.
The cure for racism born of conditioned fear learning is not to chemically dampen the brain’s response to fear generally – because fear is often useful – but to attack the causes of the conditioned associations that lead to bias in the first place.
The rest of this post will show how the fear response, claims about race, and the way the drug works all come together to point to the social nature of even “neurological” race bias – and to its economic and legal repercussions.
The fear response
When we see something that frightens or startles us, several regions of the brain become active – particularly the amygdala. The amygdala has many functions, so a neuroimage showing activity in the amygdala does not necessarily mean that a person is experiencing fear. But if a person has a frightening experience (loud noise!) or sees something she’s afraid of (snakes!), activity in the amygdala spikes. This activity is pre-conscious and totally outside our control: We startle first and then maybe stop to think about it.
The automaticity of fear serves us well in the face of real threats – but poorly in much of daily life. Fear learning is overly easy: A single negative experience can create a lasting, automatic fear association. Repeated, weak negative experiences can also form a strong fear association. And, we can “catch” fear socially: If my friend tells me that she had a negative experience, I may form an automatic fear association as if I had been frightened or harmed myself. Finally, fear lasts. I can consciously tell myself not to be afraid of a particular thing but my automatic fear response is likely to persist.
Race bias and the fear response
In neuroimaging studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on white and black Americans, research subjects on average have a greater amygdalar response to images of black faces than to images of white faces. Researchers have interpreted this as a pre-conscious fear response. Indeed, the more that activity in a person’s amydala increases in response to the images of black faces, the more strongly he or she makes negative associations with images of black faces and with typically African-American names (see paper here).
These automatic fear responses matter because they literally shape our perceptions of reality. For example, a subject might be asked to rate the facial expressions on a set of white and black faces. The facial expressions range from happy to neutral to angry. A subject who has a strong amygdalar response to images of black faces is much more likely to misinterpret neutral or even moderately happy expressions on a black facial image as being hostile or angry. This shows how fear changes our perceptions, which in turn changes how we react to and treat other people. It also shows how fear alters perception to create a self-reinforcing loop.
This kind of pre-conscious or automatic racism matters economically and legally: A majority of white people who have taken these implicit association tests demonstrate some automatic bias against black faces both associationally and neurologically. White people numerically and proportionally hold more positions as decision-makers about employment – like hiring and promotion – and about legal process and consequences – like whether to charge a suspect with a crime, the severity of the crime with which to charge him or her, and whether to offer a generous or harsh plea bargain. A study of two hundred judges serving in jurisdictions across the United States has shown that judges, too, more readily make these automatic, negative associations about black people than they do about white people. The implication is that automatic racial bias could play a role in pervasively tilting the scales against black people in every phase of economic life and in every phase of the legal process.
Yet, current anti-discrimination law only prohibits explicit racial bias. An employer may not advertise a position as “whites only” nor fire nor refuse to promote a worker because the employer does not want to retain or advance a black person. Systematic racial bias that creates unlawful “disparate impact” also rests on explicit racism: plaintiffs who claim that they are proportionally under-represented in, say, hiring and promotion by a particular employer must show that the disparate impact results from an intentional discriminatory purpose.
Automatic race bias, by contrast, takes a different form – a form not barred by law. Automatic discrimination expresses itself when the white supervisor (or police officer, or prosecutor, or judge, or parole board member) just somehow feels that his or her black counterpart has the proverbial “bad attitude,” or doesn’t “fit” with the culture of the organization, or poses a greater risk to the public than an equivalent white offender and so should not be offered bail or a plea deal or be paroled after serving some part of his sentence.
Tying it all together
If current anti-discrimination law does not touch automatic bias, and automatic bias is pervasive, then does this point to a role for drugs?
On propranlol, an implicitly biased interviewer or boss might perceive a black candidate more fairly, unfiltered by automatic negative responses. (She might, of course, still harbor conscious but unstated forms of bias; propranolol certainly would not touch race-biased beliefs about professionalism, competence, and the like.) But it also would generally dampen the decision-maker’s automatic fear responses. An overall reduction in automatic negative responses would not necessarily be a good thing: while it might free decision-makers from some false negative judgments based on race, it also would likely impair them from picking up on real negative signals from other sources.
And the take-away …
That a fear-dampening drug reduces racial bias in subjects helps confirm that much racial bias is based in automatic negative responses, which result from conditioned fear learning. Although this finding is hardly surprising, it is interesting and important. Any person reading this study should ask him- or herself: How does automatic fear affect my decisions about other people? How does it affect the judgments of important economic and legal decision-makers? How can we make it less likely that the average white person sees the average black person through distorting fear goggles in the first place?
The problem with this study and the headlines hyping it is that they perpetuate the idea that racism is the individual racist’s problem (It’s in his brain! And we can fix it!). A close reading of the study points to the importance of socially conditioned fear-learning about race – which then becomes neurologically represented in each of us. Despite the headlines, racism is not a neurological problem but a cultural one, which means that the solutions are a lot more complex than popping a pill.