We live in a fast-paced world; this isn’t new. Now it is cars and the internet, previously it might have been wolves and bears. We have evolved to make decisions quickly, and we learn from our experiences so we can make these choices even more quickly in the future. This is great, even for non-dangerous, mundane life choices; we do not need to waste precious time and energy thinking too much, we take what we have already experienced and apply it to the current situation, almost instantly. We have a repository of collected data that can inform our choices on an unconscious level. We make an assumption and most of the time we act upon it without too much additional thought. Again, these mental shortcuts are great, most of the time. You don’t need to consider every factor for every decision, one you may have made hundreds of times before.
However, as is all too common, our primitive brain has not evolved quick enough to keep up with our changing logic and moral codes. Some of those primitive lessons become engraved on your modern psyche, not by any fault of your own, just by exposure. Monkey see monkey do.
We are tribal by nature, coming together from family to familiar, and as our tribes grew into communities, built upon a foundation of people with shared experiences and values, which we must protect from the savages in the tribes next door. Most of us do not live in such small communities anymore. However these outdated ideas of an ‘us versus them’ are still passed down through generations and through communities. These can be somewhat overtly seen at your local sports ball match against the team down the road, or perhaps more sinisterly, propagating and spreading discontent, silently in the background, affecting how you act and the choices you make without you knowing it. This is implicit bias, and to some degree we all have some hardwired into our brain.
So, are we all a little bit racist?……… a little bit sexist? Well to some degree the answer is yes. Nobody’s perfect, and we all can make split-second decisions that you may not have done if you had stopped and thought about it for a second longer. But how racist are you? If these decisions are made on an unconscious level, none of us would or even could tell if they are making these choices? How can we measure the degree of bias, which a person has? Well, there is a test, it’s actually pretty simple if a little rough and ready, the implicit-association test (IAT). In this test, participants are shown an aspect of a person or a description associated with a group of people, and the test subject has to decide as quickly as possible if that aspect is a good or bad trait, or something equally as fundamental. It has to be that binary as the test subjects are asked to answer as quickly as possible, attempting to bypass the logical part of the subject’s brain; there is no room for any grey areas in this test, it has to be ‘black or white’. although the validity and the robustness of this test have been questioned, especially when conducted on test subjects who are not familiar with these sorts of testing methods (1).
So, do we have to live with this little bigot forever on our shoulder, or is there something which can be done about it? Well, this association is technically learnt behavior, so is it something that can be unlearnt? Yes, but it takes time and conscious effort, from individuals and society as a whole to alter this ingrained bias. However, is there something medical that could be done? The brain is a physiological part of our bodies, we change our body’s behavior all the time with drugs, so is there anything to be done for our brain chemistry? Can medicines alter the way we think? This is obviously the case as there is a multitude of drugs that alter how we perceive the world around us, taken recreationally or for mental disorders and mood stabilising. But what can be done to alter our biases, without impairing us?
In 2012 a paper was published from Oxford University reported that in a study, if a subject took the commonly-prescribed drug, propranolol, a beta-blocker usually prescribed to lower heart pressure, that after 30 minutes these participants would score significantly lower on the IAT compared to the control group who were just given placebos, even if temporarily(2). It is thought that by taking these beta-blockers and lowering the heart rate of the test subjects, this can reduce the effect of sympathetic nervous system, the part of us which controls our fight or flight response to perceived danger, dulling any anxiety and allowing the brain to process information in a more rational way, overriding that fast, primitive, assuming brain(3). Although much of this is still speculation, and a study of 36 white British men is hardly comprehensive. But it still warrants the question, if there was a pill that could reduce these illogical thoughts would you take it or should certain people be forced to?
I am certainly not suggesting that we all enter this brave new world, but it’s is also hard to deny that in systems of power, it is hard to be a minority, be you a woman entering a male dominated field of study or an individual of colour being unfairly discriminated against in a majority white law enforcement.
Throughout my career I have been to a good number of implicit bias workshops (voluntarily) and have been a part of events which promote women in STEM subjects, and there has been change, but it’s not been quick. There are studies that say that the gender pay gap will close…..in 99 years’ time(4). I want to keep fighting for equality in the field I love, but is knowing really half the battle still?
So, should we make it mandatory for police personnel to take a pill before starting a shift? Should a panel of interviewers before they consider a candidate? There may currently be only minor evidence for the efficacy of this study, with the replication crisis within social science and the questionably of the validity of the IAT test, but with a relatively ubiquitous drug why not just do it? Well, I would imagine the idea would meet some push-back. There are not zero risks to these types of medication, therefore some individuals with underlying health conditions may have to be disqualified from certain roles. What are the ethical implications of such a programme, and would the improvement in our moral agency outweigh any questions of individual rights and ethics? What is the lesser of these two evils?
1.Rezaei, A.R., 2011. Validity and reliability of the IAT: Measuring gender and ethnic stereotypes. Computers in human behavior, 27(5), pp.1937-1941.
2.Terbeck, S., Kahane, G., McTavish, S., Savulescu, J., Cowen, P.J. and Hewstone, M., 2012. Propranolol reduces implicit negative racial bias. Psychopharmacology, 222(3), pp.419-424.
3. Montes, N. 2017. A Medical Solution to Reducing Police Brutality. International Neuroethics Society Science Communication Essay Winner. University of Washington, departments of psychology and philosophy