University of Texas at Austin

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Belly up to the lab

Prof. Kim Fromme in the Bar Lab.

Prof. Kim Fromme in the Bar Lab.

You go to a bar on Austin’s Sixth Street to see and be seen. You go to the Bar Lab to be watched. You go to both to drink.

The Bar Lab is exactly that: A bar laboratory. It’s where Kim Fromme, a professor in the Department of Psychology, and her students conduct research on college students and drinking.

It looks like a small neighborhood bar might look if it was staffed with a cleaning crew and smoking had never been allowed.

There are tables, bar stools, neon beer signs and a television on the wall. The lighting can go down low and the music can be pumped up.

The mirror at the back of the bar is one-way so the researchers can observe the participants, who are recorded and videotaped.

Fromme’s lab is one of eight in the country. Her graduate school mentor, Dr. G. Alan Marlatt, set up one of the first bar labs at the University of Washington.

In a bar lab, research participants react more realistically to experimental scenarios, Fromme said.

“Cues are important,” she said. “Particularly if you want to see how somebody drinks naturally, you’re better off putting them in a bar as a drinking situation than you would, say, a classroom.”

To get to the Bar Lab, participants walk through part of the Seay Building, which houses the Psychology Department. They sign informed-consent releases. They know they are in an experiment.

Still, Fromme said, it’s remarkable how quickly people forget they’re not in a real bar.

“Everybody comes in and says, ‘Yeah, I know you’re watching me. Where’s the camera?’ ” she said. “But within five minutes it’s, “Give me another drink.’ ”

Then there’s that favorite cocktail of the psychology set, the placebo.

”To this day the power of it never ceases to amaze me,” Fromme said.

It must be said, however, that the placebo the Bar Lab bartenders serve is more than a Shirley Temple garnished with a maraschino cherry.

“When you’re doing a placebo study, it’s got to feel, smell, act real,” Fromme said.

The researchers infuse the area with alcohol smells, rim the glasses with a small amount of alcohol and set the lights and music to appropriate levels.

“You’ve got all of these cues, your eyes and your nose and your taste is saying booze and that helps fool the brain,” she said.

She recalled an evening when she checked in on a project run by a graduate student. The scene was a bit boisterous.

“I pulled the student out and said, ‘Oh, alcohol night?’ and he said, ‘placebo,’ ” she recounted. “I mean I was fooled walking in and seeing the people laughing and talking and I smelled the alcohol.”

After one experiment, a participant took exception when she told him he had been drinking a placebo.

“He said, ‘No you didn’t. I’m drunk,’” Fromme said. “’I’m unsteady. I was flirting with the bartender.’ ”

They stepped over to the Breathalyzer, which showed his blood alcohol content was not even on the charts—at 0.00 percent.

At the end of an experimental session, the participants are required to stay in the lab until their blood alcohol content is below 0.02 percent. Even then they can’t drive themselves home. They are either provided with a taxi ride or make arrangements for someone to pick them up and take them home.

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1 Comment to "Belly up to the lab"

1.  Karen Giangrosso says

Very interesting! Too bad you can’t follow them to see what happens after they leave the lab.
It is surprising that you have some that think they have been drinking alcohol when they have not. People do like to party and just the thought of drinking is enough for some of us, I guess!
I am an elementary school nurse and a mother of a UT student.

October 6, 2009


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