Alcohol research in the bar lab and beyond

Dr Emma Davies (Oxford Brookes University) reports from the Society's Annual Conference.

If I asked you how much alcohol you had to drink last weekend, would you be tempted to knock a few units off? Would you perhaps add a few units on? Would you actually even remember how much you had to drink? It is an age old problem for alcohol researchers; predominantly we have to rely on our participants to accurately self-report their levels of consumption. Researchers at the University of Liverpool, however, had built a ‘bar lab’ which allows them to run experimental studies and then observe how much their participants consume. Some of their research, presented in a symposium chaired by Professor Matt Field, focuses on our ability to control our own alcohol consumption.

‘Inhibitory control’ refers to our ability to override impulsive behaviours; people who are dependent on alcohol often exhibit disinhibited behaviours and those in a disinhibited state tend to drink more. Dr Andrew Jones’ work looks at whether problem drinkers can be trained to improve this cognitive capacity using stop-signal training. Participants are presented with neutral or alcohol related photographs on a screen and are asked to press a key dependent on which is presented, unless they hear a beep at the same time. Those who have been successfully trained to inhibit their response went on to drink less in the bar lab. Researchers now want to discover whether response inhibition training could be delivered via a smartphone application could help drinkers to cut down. 

In another study in the bar lab, Dr Paul Christiansen has been exploring alcohol priming effects. We don’t often intend to get so drunk that we embarrass ourselves, but I am sure there are occasions when we’ve all woken up full of regret. Dr Christiansen said that the alcohol priming effect could be responsible for our unplanned binges and loss of control. Alcohol craving and drinking are increased after an initial dose of alcohol, meaning that drinking effectively primes more drinking. However, it is possible that we can learn to reduce this effect and Dr Christiansen’s work involves manipulating participants’ beliefs about the effects of alcohol. Initial results show that participants who were told that they had high levels of control over their drinking went on to consume less beer in the bar lab than those told they had average levels of control. 

Research in the bar lab is highly innovative and has important applications in the real world. When we are actually out at the pub, there are numerous environmental influences on our consumption. In a separate symposium, David Troy set out to explore one of these factors; the glasses that we drink our favourite tipple from. According to Troy, adults have the same problems with making volume judgements that children do, as Piaget famously demonstrated in studies of volume conservation. In a laboratory study, Troy and his colleagues found that participants drank beer significantly more slowly from a straight that a curved glass. However, there were problems when the researchers attempted to trial the effects of straight versus curved glasses in a real world pub environment, not least of which was the anticipated impact on takings. This is understandable when, in recent years, there has been a shift towards more ‘at home’ drinking, with many bars and pubs closing down. Instead, we purchase our alcohol from the supermarket, as part of our weekly shopping. 

The sight of discounted crates of beer at the end of the supermarket aisles is something we are increasingly familiar with. Dr Rachel Pechey and her colleagues at the University of Cambridge set out to explore the influence of these promotions using trolley tracking software. Unsurprisingly, this research demonstrated that when alcohol is promoted in this manner, sales go increase and the price per volume sold decreases. The same effect does not seem to be as pronounced for soft drinks. Dr Pechey suggested that this information could be used to regulate the types of products placed on aisle ends, but she was careful to acknowledge that there may be challenges in implementing this type of intervention, particularly in addressing the loss of sales to the alcohol and supermarket industry. With 50 per cent of drinkers regularly exceeding government guidelines, it is clear that research from the bar lab and beyond is essential to help individuals take back control of their consumption.

- More reports from the Society's Annual Conference are on this site, and will appear in the July print edition. Find out more about next year's event

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