The Future of Moral Enhancement

Could chemical enhancement defeat human prejudice?

Humans are prejudiced. Some more than others, but it would be difficult to find an individual who shows no biases at all. Prejudice is a positive or negative attitude towards a social group, typically based on judgments about race, gender, age, ethnicity, or religion. Prejudice can also be based on diverging ideologies or political perspectives, on different accents, different body shapes, sexual orientation, nationality, location, income, etc. Both in the past and today, we find prejudice all over the world. Most importantly, much prejudice and bias is unconscious or implicit - we don't know just how prejudiced we all are.

So why are people prejudiced? There are many contributing factors, but one key factor is that humans tend to form groups: in-groups and out-groups. Indeed, one could argue that prejudice only exists because of categorisation. If we didn't form groups or see differences, there would be no prejudice. Prejudice may also have had evolutionary advantages. Being distrustful of other groups could have enhanced in-group co-operation, and protected that group from exploitation, free riding or aggressive capture of resources through inappropriate trust.

A second reason for prejudice is the operation of stereotypes: perceived knowledge about a social group. Gordon Allport stated that stereotypes might have a “kernel of truth”, but one which is often misinterpreted, or over-extended, leading to the false belief that we are able to predict an individual's behaviours based on one piece of information, such as ethnicity or religion. However, prediction about an individual's future behaviour statistically increases in accuracy when multiple factors are taken into account, suggesting that individuals who use stereotypes may get a simple but inaccurate prediction.

Prejudice can disrupt social well-being and create social disadvantage for the minority group. For example, discriminated-against individuals suffer significantly more physical and mental health problems (such as cardiovascular diseases, or depression). And indeed, prejudice can also contribute to war, conflict, crime, and murder, and even genocide as occurred in the holocaust during the 2nd World War.


"Maybe in the future, biological enhancements will help us unlearn prejudice, which in a global world represents an existential threat."

Social psychologists have long studied mechanisms which might help to reduce prejudice. As far back as 1954, Allport developed the contact hypothesis, which suggests that contact between the different groups can reduce prejudice and discrimination. A recent meta-analysis of over 500 studies found that intergroup contact had a reliable effect on reducing prejudice. More recently, however, it was determined that quality of contact was also essential. Unsurprisingly positive intergroup contact was found to reduce prejudice whilst negative contact increased it.

More recently, research has begun to uncover the possibility of a biological contribution to our bias and prejudice. This raises the prospect of whether social interventions (like positive contact) are alone sufficient and whether biological alterations could be key to reducing prejudice. Tantamount to a form of moral bioenhancement, this would represent possibly history’s greatest paradigm shift in terms of how we think about morality.

In one of our studies we wanted to determine if emotions, such as fear and aggression, might play a role in unconscious prejudice and subsequently how we might chemically adjust them. To reduce emotional arousal, we used beta-adreno-receptor blocker propranolol, which has been found to not only reduce high blood pressure but also symptoms of acute anxiety. In this study, participants either received a single dose of placebo or propranolol before completing the implicit association test (IAT), a measure of assessing levels of implicit biases.

In the IAT participants respond to pictures of in-and-outgroup faces, as well as to positive and negative words by pressing a corresponding key on the computer keypad. In some trials, participants are asked to combine positive words with in-group faces and negative words with out-group faces. In other trials participants are asked to do the reverse, associating positive words with out-group and negative words with in-group. Around 80% of participants find it harder to do the latter combination, indicating some in-group biases. Remarkably, our study showed that propranolol reduced implicit racial biases significantly.

In a further study, we used functional magnetic resonance imagining (fMRI), as well as the pharmacological intervention, to determine brain responses to black and white faces. We found that propranolol reduced activation differences towards black and white faces in the fusiform gyrus, a area of the brain associated with early face processing. This suggests that propranolol might modulate the perception of in-and out-group faces.

Indeed, prejudice might start at the level of face perception, where differences are determined. For instance, a recent study found that two patients with brain legions to the fusiform gyrus were selectively unable to detect the race (but not the age or gender) of a face. However, it is important to note that in our empirical studies we investigated racial prejudice, and different types of prejudices might have different underlying emotional aspects. Furthermore, there is an important distinction to be made between implicit and explicit biases. Explicit prejudice is the overt expression of prejudicial attitude, whereas implicit biases are more subtle associations. Propranolol only affected the implicit biases, which might suggest that some forms of bias could be influenced by the intervention whilst others could not.

Prejudice remains a stubborn problem. For centuries we’ve assumed that it can be unlearned through better education. But its particular resilience to rational argument suggests this might not be enough. Maybe in the future, biological enhancements will help us unlearn this trait, which in a globalised world of weapons of mass destruction represents an existential threat. Because biological, chemical and nuclear weapons are increasingly in the hands of more and more people, we must explore every avenue to reduce prejudice.


 Read more from this issue of IAI News here: Morality and Prejudice




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