Caroline Davies Monday 17 February 2014 13.26 GMT
London psychology department creates elaborate set to help understand our relationship with alcohol
From the flock wallpaper, bar stools and beer pumps, it looks like a regular, if a little dated, local.
Except this is a Big Brother-esque bar where a drinker’s every move is captured on camera to be scrutinised and analysed in the name of research.
Room J-407, on the fourth floor of London South Bank university’s main block, is an elaborate set, built at a cost of £20,000 by the psychology department; a lab bar, where customers are guinea pigs and the contents of bottles are definitely not what it says on the label. As for its cheery bar staff, they are all psychology students researching the effects of alcohol on behaviour.
Bar labs have been used for conducting research at a handful of US universities, but this is thought to be the first in the UK.
Dr Tony Moss, head of psychology, recreated the feel of a proper pub in order to test reactions in as authentic a setting as possible but where conditions could be completely controlled.
Lighting, music, even the pre-recorded background chatter played through hidden speakers, go toward convincing those participating in experiments that they are in a real bar, “rather than in a lab room with four grey walls”, said Dr Daniel Frings, senior lecturer in psychology. It even smells like one, as glasses are lightly rubbed with a small quantity of ethanol.
Order up a beer, however, and you may end up with a placebo.
“The glass will smell of alcohol, but whether there is any actual alcohol in the drink will depend,” said Moss.
His specialist field is the cognitive aspects of addiction and the application of decision theory for understanding the onset, maintenance and offset of addictive behaviours. Research such as this, he said, is crucial in gaining better understanding of why, and how, people drink.
Every experiment has to be rubber stamped by the university’s ethics committee. The amount of alcohol dispensed is carefully controlled up to the drink-drive limit.
Props include a fruit machine, to test risk-taking behaviour, and wire loop games will test eye-hand co-ordination. There will, eventually, be a juke box to determine what kind of music makes people drink more quickly.
Hidden CCTV cameras will relay behaviour in real time to students in nearby rooms. Breathalysers are stored under the bar. Mobile eye tracers – where participants wear Google glass type equipment – will monitor precisely where a person is looking. This is particularly useful in determining whether people actually look at and read posters with information about how to safely consume alcohol, said Moss.
“It is not the sort of research you can conduct in a real pub. There are too many other influences and a lack of experimental control”, he said.
The beer pumps, too, are a prop. They are not hooked up to actual beer kegs. “We are not going to be serving beer every single day and it goes off fairly quickly,” said Moss.
As yet, room J-407 has no name. It also has no licensee, as the booze is free. “I would love my name above the grey door,” joked Moss. Oh, and there is also no giant TV screen showing sport. “I just hate that in pubs. So, not in my pub,” he laughed.