Why, when we say "I'll just stay for one", does that never turn out to be the case? Photo: Getty
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Peering through beer goggles: the pub that wants to improve your health

Psychologists at London South Bank University have cunningly disguised a lab as a pub in order to research our drinking habits.

I’ll just stay for one.” How many times has that phrase been uttered on the threshold of a pub? Nobody intends to drink five pints before 8pm on a weeknight with nothing but a few crisps to soak them up but it happens more often than any of us would like to admit.

Imagine, then, if you could drink in a pub that could tell when you’d had enough, isolating the decision that turns one drink into many. Something would gently propel you towards the door at precisely the right moment. You would never again find yourself on a bus, three sheets to the wind, desperately envious of a stranger’s kebab.

With this in mind, psychologists at London South Bank University (LSBU) have opened their own pub. Or rather, they have cunningly disguised a lab as a pub. Off a fourth-floor corridor on the university’s south London campus is room J-407, a nondescript, windowless space that has undergone a £20,000 transformation. There’s a high wooden bar, complete with beer pumps and shelves of glasses and spirits behind. A fruit machine stands in the corner and there are plans for a jukebox, too. The deep-pile red carpet is too clean to be entirely convincing but this is still a fair imitation of an old-fashioned drinking establishment.

Tony Moss, head of psychology at LSBU, says people often tell him it looks like the pub from Only Fools and Horses. He laughs. “All we’re trying to do from a psychological point of view is trigger associations people have with drinking.”

In some cases, study participants will wear Google Glass-style eye-tracking devices so that every blink and glance is recorded. In others, they will complete simple tasks and surveys while being monitored to determine the influence of the “pub” environment. Do people take more risks when they gamble in a bar, even if they aren’t drinking? Do we read the health warnings on bottle labels and posters? Can you really tell if that beer you’re swigging contains alcohol?

“A lot of what governments do is make population-level interventions, like a minimum unit price for alcohol. The evidence thus also tends to be population-level. That information is useful to an extent but the decisions to drink don’t happen at population level,” says Moss. Here, the researchers are seeking something far more subtle and individual – the trigger that transforms an intermittent drinker into a committed boozer.

Is it not all a bit Orwellian, though? The idea of installing hidden cameras in the pub was considered and rejected, says Moss, but he denies that the current set-up is “creepy”. “We’re getting ordinary CCTV instead, on the basis that it’s an entirely normal thing to have in a pub.” (A slightly worrying thought.) And: “It’s a research study. No one is going to wander in.” His colleague Ian Albery adds: “People behave in context. They behave in the moment. We’re just providing the moment.”

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Russia's Revenge

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The lessons of Finding Dory are commendable, but why make a children's film so complicated?

Pixar's latest animation, a sequel to Finding Nemo, gives forgetful fish Dory a lead. Plus: Jason Bourne.

Amnesia is a concern for the heroes of two blockbuster sequels – the Pixar animation Finding Dory and the espionage thriller Jason Bourne. The condition extends to the film-makers, who have forgotten much of what made the original movies so appealing. In fairness, the 2003 Finding Nemo lacked the emotional complexity of top-drawer Pixar. But its story of an anxious clownfish combing the ocean for his lost son served as a neat rebuke to worrywart parents, and it featured one enduring character: the Pacific blue tang Dory. Her short-term memory loss left her in a state of carefree enchantment perfectly expressed by Ellen DeGeneres, whose voice calls to mind a rubber ball thrilled afresh by each new bounce.

Now Dory has a movie of her own, in which she goes in search of the parents from whom she was estranged as an infant. Many of the previous picture’s fish chip in to help, but the script’s argument for inclusivity and diversity is made most persuasively by Dory’s new allies. Hank is a tomato-red octopus who can’t bear to be touched, while Becky, a frizz-haired loon, and Gerald, a bullied sea lion, have learning difficulties that leave them vulnerable to mockery by their fellow creatures. Heroism originates here with the apparently disadvantaged, whose differences ultimately prove to be no sort of disadvantage at all.

The message is commendable, so it’s unfortunate that the execution is so complicated. Incident is stacked upon incident, most clumsily during a final half-hour in which the sea creatures take chaotically to the roads. When there are lulls in the action, these are filled too often by homilies and life lessons that demand no spelling out.

Quality control remains high in the area of animation. From the velvety anemone beneath a lattice of rippling sunlight to the pink-tinted ocean surface at dusk, it is clear that nature needs to up its game to keep ahead of Pixar. The biggest gasps should be reserved for Hank’s extraordinary chameleonic powers, which allow him to blend into a laboratory wall and to mimic a potted plant or a handrail. Impersonating a baby in its stroller, he uses his Mr Tickle arms to propel himself at high speed like a wheelchair-basketball champ tearing up the court. In a film that largely plays it safe, Hank brings a jolt of anarchic danger.

The breakneck editing and neck-breaking violence of the Bourne series, about a brainwashed CIA killing machine who gradually recovers his memory and goes rogue, has been the biggest influence on action cinema since the advent of the car chase. There have been only three instalments until now (four if you count the spin-off The Bourne Legacy) but their style is so ubiquitous it feels as if there’s one Bourne every minute. The latest outing reunites two leading players who swore they were done with the franchise: the actor Matt Damon, looking as bulky and implacable as a tank, and Paul Greengrass, the British director who whipped up a storm in films two and three but consigns it to a teacup this time around.

Rarely has such a fast-paced film felt so weary and resigned. Christopher Rouse’s screenplay throws into the usual paranoid, dystopian, NSA-fearing mix a Zuckerberg-style social media guru (Riz Ahmed) in cahoots with the craggy CIA overlord (Tommy Lee Jones) hunting Bourne. There is also a bright CIA underling (Alicia Vikander) experiencing vague pangs of conscience from her operations hub where po-faced automatons tap endlessly on keyboards; it’s like a Kraftwerk gig without the tunes.

The film makes gestures towards political topicality. But whether it’s riots in Greece or the ongoing tension between security and privacy, everything is reduced to the level of window dressing while Bourne crashes motorbikes, plummets from the tops of buildings and doles out upper cuts as though he were passing around Tic Tacs.

Just once it would be nice to have some character detail or a line of dialogue that went beyond “Suspect turning left”, or the series catchphrase: “You don’t have any idea who you’re dealing with!” Bourne himself is a dead end, dramatically speaking; he has recovered his memory now but his personality and inner conflict have been wiped clean. When he isn’t fighting, he has nothing to do except go woozy with flashbacks and generally outfox the CIA. He should try hiding in the voluminous bags beneath Tommy Lee Jones’s eyes – they’d never find him there.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue