Could an empathy pill help solve inequality?

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What if the intolerant, cold-hearted, miserly people of the world could take a pill and suddenly become generous progressives? Researchers at the University of California Berkeley and University of California San Francisco have just released a study posing this very question—and revealing intriguing evidence that it may someday be possible.

In the study, published in the journal Current Biology, researchers had one group of participants take a dose of tolcapone, a drug generally used to treat symptoms of Parkinson’s disease that prolongs the effects of dopamine in the brain. (Dopamine is a feel-good hormone that plays a role in higher cognitive function and reward-motivated behavior, among other things.) The other group was given a placebo. Neither group was aware of which pill they'd been given.

Next, the participants were instructed to play an “economic game” in which they divvied up money between themselves and a stranger. It turned out that those who took the tolcapone divided the money much more equally than those who took the placebo. They were more attuned to social inequalities and more active about remedying the situation, the researchers reported.


"We typically think of fair-mindedness as a stable characteristic, part of one's personality," said Ming Hsu co-author of the paper, in a statement. "Our study doesn't reject this notion, but it does show how that trait can be systematically affected by targeting specific neurochemical pathways in the human brain."

It’s kind of freaky to think about the fact that the way you express compassion towards others can be altered by brain chemistry. But it’s also a potent reminder that tolerance and generosity may not always speak to some core virtuosity in our personality. It’s all in our heads. Literally.