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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.

Why, when we say "I'll just stay for one", does that never turn out to be the case? Photo: Getty
Why, when we say "I'll just stay for one", does that never turn out to be the case? Photo: Getty

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.”