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Smoke and Mirrors

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Clinical psychology graduate student Diane Logan observes studies conducted in the BARLAB through a two-way mirror behind the counter.

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Senior Hillary Philip serves drinks and helps conduct studies at the BARLAB for research credit toward her psychology degree.

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The bar atmosphere of this lab helps students feel more comfortable when consuming alcohol, which helps researchers better observe how studentsresearchers better observe how students behave while intoxicated.

Little do students know, there is a place on campus where they can legally obtain alcohol — and participate in reserch studies.

This particular bar has all the makings of a popular cocktail lounge, with neon lights, stools, music and comfortable couches. Students come in and are served a wide variety of alcoholic beverages — if they are 21 or older, of course. What’s more, the bartenders are other students who obtain credit for their services.

The psychology department’s Behavioral Alcohol Research Lab (BARLAB) in Guthrie Hall is home to an array of studies on alcohol and behavior conducted by graduate students and research professors. Students are paid to participate in the studies, and many find the atmosphere of the bar to be more conducive to drinking, making them more relaxed and natural in the process, said Alan Marlatt, a UW psychology professor and the director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center.

“Before we had the BARLAB, we did alcohol administration in regular psychology labs,” he said. “We decided that we needed to build an environment that looked like a real bar, and as soon as we did that, students started drinking much more.”

Behind the bar mirror, researchers have the capacity to observe student behavior and what goes on in the bar, and hidden cameras and microphones are placed strategically around the room to record information.

Students will start playing drinking games or dancing, and their noise level will steadily increase said Diane Logan, a clinical psychology graduate student at the research center who is overseeing a study at the BARLAB.

“The BARLAB is unique in that it’s half bar and half lab: People aren’t surprised to see a mirror behind the counter, because mirrors should be behind bars, and it seems like it’s part of it,” she said.

The grant for the funding of the BARLAB came from the National Institute of Health and was created in part to look at factors that impact student drinking.

“When the lab first opened in the 1980s, The Daily did a story on it and it went all across the country,” Marlatt said. “There was some concern and controversy that was raised, [such as], ‘Why was the UW using taxpayers’ money to create a bar on campus for students?’”

The BARLAB typically has one or two ongoing studies at any given time, Marlatt said.

“We’ve done many studies in the BARLAB over the years. The kind of thing we do is look at social factors that go into drinking, like party habits: What if you go to a party and hardly anyone is drinking at all?” he said.

The BARLAB is famous for its expectancy studies, where students who receive placebo, non-alcoholic drinks are monitored closely to observe the changes in their behavior. People who believe they are receiving alcohol can become relaxed and will criticize people more or exhibit other strong placebo effects, Marlatt said.

“After they see the effects, they start drinking less,” Marlatt said. “They begin to realize there is more than just alcohol going on here. The setting can have an effect. After people realize that, they realize they don’t need to consume as much.”

Since its opening, the BARLAB has been featured on 20/20 and Bill Nye the Science Guy and will soon appear on the Discovery Channel, which visited the bar laboratory last month to see the effects of placebo drinking on students.

“They brought in 12 students, all 21 and over,” Marlatt said. “Eight got non-alcoholic drinks, three people got alcohol, [but] all of them guessed wrong when asked what they received.”

Senior Hillary Philip, a psychology major volunteering at the BARLAB as part of her degree requirements, said she enjoys watching students try to discover the purpose of a study in which they have participated.

“Some people figure it out; most people are interested,” she said. “It’s nice to see that people want to know and be a part of the research. It’s a fairly easy way to get involved and to make money and make a difference at the same time.”

Philip hadn’t heard of the BARLAB before she looked through the Psychology 499 research credit options. Of more than 100 other course offerings, she chose to be a test proctor for the variable credit class.

Now Philip serves drinks and helps monitor the activities of her fellow students, leading them through the entire process of a study, which can take anywhere from two and a half to four hours.

The screening process for paid volunteers is stringent, Logan said. Students are screened out for a family history of alcohol dependency, being on medication and other factors. Girls must take a pregnancy test before being allowed to participate in a study.

“I was nervous at first,” Philip said about leading students through the process. “I thought, ‘Uh oh, what if I have to be the one to break the news to them if they’re pregnant?’”

When asked what her friends think of her job, Philip said most thought it was unusual.

“People kind of think of [the BARLAB] as a myth in some way, and it’s kind of funny letting people know what I do,” she said. “Some of [my friends] are like, ‘Where’s the number? How can I sign up?’ My mom actually had the strangest reaction, [asking] ‘This is a course?’”

Students are surprised whenever they walk into the bar, Logan said.

“People always say the same kinds of things, like, ‘Oh, so is this where the teachers go to party?’”

[Reach reporter Arla Shephard at features@thedaily.washington.edu.]

For more information:

For more information on participating in a study, call 206-543-3965.

Look for the Discovery Channel feature on the UW’s BARLAB later this spring.

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