Can MDMA Make You Racist?

Everyone's favorite club drug can stir up all kinds of bad feelings.

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Apr 3 2014, 3:00pm

Some people who may or may not be experiencing the effects of oxytocin

You don’t have a lot of time for rational thought after dropping a pill. Three Mitsis in and you’re almost entirely preoccupied with finding out what people’s scarves feel like, or trying to focus on literally anything through your rapidly flickering eyes. So you’d have thought that amid all the euphoria and heart palpitations there surely wouldn't be space to get hung up on the ethnicity of the people around you.

It turns out, however, that the brain's biochemistry during a blissed-out club night may not be too dissimilar from its status at a KKK rally. This is thanks to a hormone called oxytocin, which has been described by many as "the love hormone" or the "cuddle drug." The hormone has been linked to developing trust between mother and child during breast feeding, and between partners after intercourse. Its release is also triggered by MDMA, and that loved-up feeling you get after swallowing a pill has been attributed to the effects the hormone has on the brain.

However, research by professor Carsten de Dreu at the University of Amsterdam showed in 2011 that oxytocin had a slightly more sinister side. His experiments revealed that what many thought of as the "moral molecule" actually contributed to what scientists euphemistically refer to as "ethnocentrism," or what the layman would call racism.

Participants in de Dreu's study were presented with a dilemma in which they had to deny one person access to a lifeboat in order to save five others. In the double-blind experiment, Dutch men were given either oxytocin via a nasal spray or a placebo. The results showed that those taking oxytocin were more likely to spare men with Dutch names while sacrificing those with Muslim- or German-sounding names. For those who were given the placebo, however, the name of the potential victim didn’t matter.

Some fascists in Brighton, England, experiencing the potential effects of oxytocin. Photo by Henry Langston

I found it strange that this hormone, which supposedly makes you love everything around you, also apparently turns you into that very specific type of dickhead who chooses to be hostile to those who are different from you. So to find out more, I got in touch with Anil Seth, a neuroscientist at the University of Sussex and co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. He said that this effect of oxytocin could have something to do evolution and social survival.

“The idea of altruism and pro-sociality has been looked at a lot by anthropologists and social scientists who recognize that while it often pays to be pro-social among your in-group—those who share common cultural interests and who may even be distantly related to you—the opposite might apply with your out-group,” he told me.

In other words, discrimination could be caused by a particular hormone in the human brain. I asked him what exact role oxytocin has in this process, and he told me about another one of de Dreu’s experiments, in which subjects were put into two groups and had to make arbitrary judgments about whether abstract shapes were attractive or not. Of course, there was no right or wrong answer—the real test was to see which group agreed with each other more.

“Where the groups disagreed about a shape, oxytocin would increase the homogeneity within each group," Seth told me. "So if you're in a group and you're all sniffing oxytocin, you’re more likely to be like, 'Ah, yeah, that square is brilliant—I can't understand why those guys over there hate the square.' And of course, this is all relatively unconscious, so people don't know the oxytocin is having this effect. The shape isn't the issue—it's how similar a group’s view is when they know it differs from another group's.”

What sprung to mind here was that when certain racist groups get together, their emotions do seem to be far more pronounced than they would be if you caught each individual member alone. Of course, that also probably has something to do with the fact that they can reinforce each others' worldviews when they're in a big group and being insulted by anti-fascists.

Compare this with the feeling of togetherness you get at raves or gigs, or those scenes of mass euphoria you get at, say, Pentecostal churches where they handle snakes, and the common link is an intense shared belief system. Essentially, it’s all part of human nature to band together, even at the expense of reason or logical thought.

An important distinction to make at this point is that oxytocin’s role in these phenomena is not to produce a particular distrust of those who are different from you—it instead encourages you to feel kinship toward people who share qualities you recognize in yourself. The result isn't so much racism as it is fanaticism. The idea that oxytocin makes you feel like part of a collective is supported by an experiment that found that people on oxytocin were more inclined to lie if it meant their group benefited.

Oxytocin does this through its ability to spread emotion through a group of people, almost like a virus. Professor Seth explained this to me in more detail: “We all have emotional contagion, where if I'm a bit happy, you're a bit happy—or if I'm a bit unhappy, you’re a bit unhappy. Oxytocin is potentially playing a role in optimizing how this inference with the causes of emotional states happens.”

In other words, increased oxytocin makes us more empathic—more sensitive to the emotions around us. This idea was backed up in a recent study, published in January this year, that found that high levels of oxytocin can trigger oversensitivity to the emotions of others. There’s even some research looking into how insufficient oxytocin could contribute towards autism—a disorder that is commonly associated with a lack of an emotional understanding of others.

Some Malaysian fascists who could potentially be experiencing the effects of oxytocin

The result is that when people of shared beliefs get together, oxytocin is released and it makes them feel good, reinforcing their behavior. It then makes them more likely to stick to those beliefs and shun those who don’t agree, all in the evolutionary pursuit of fostering an in-group of companions who will stick together, protect each other, and love each other.

So MDMA doesn't make you racist. But in an environment of intense shared experience, like a rave, it can deeply intensify a kind of single-minded, delusional fanaticism and make you feel like everything and everyone around you is great—which is closely connected to how racists become more racist during street marches and Christians become more Christian when they have a preacher screaming at them in tongues.

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