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Researcher reveals the science behind college drinking

ADAPT sponsors Substance Abuse Awareness Week on Grounds

Alcohol may not be the social lubricant everyone thinks it is, according to University of Washington health psychologist Jason Kilmer. At a talk hosted by the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention Team (ADAPT) Tuesday, Kilmer discussed research demonstrating that students who believe they’ve been drinking exhibit similar social behaviors — whether or not they have actually consumed alcohol.

Kilmer and his colleagues built a Behavioral Alcohol Research lab at the University of Washington to study these effects and behaviors. The BAR lab appears to be a classroom from the outside, but looks like a bar on the inside and has a two way mirror, microphones and a camera hidden in a large “Dos Equis” sign hanging over the bar, to allow researcher to study behavior.

In the BAR lab, some groups of students — all over 21 — were given alcohol and others were not while they were either told the truth about what was in their drinks or lied to, to test differences in behavior.

Kilmer said the students who were given alcohol without their knowledge displayed none of the behaviors that students describe as occurring when they drink socially.

“None of that social stuff happened,” Kilmer said. “By the 40-minute mark the physical effects were kicking in but still none of the social behaviors.” The students blamed the physical effects — increased clumsiness, overheating and tiredness — on themselves, the lack of AC or a lack of sleep.

The most interesting behavior appeared when a group was told they were drinking alcohol while in reality they were given nothing but tonic water or non-alcoholic beer.

“This is ridiculous when you see how well this works,” Kilmer said. “You can’t tell the difference between these two groups [those given alcohol and those given no alcohol].”

The experiments are a breakthrough when it comes to assessing the effects of alcohol on behavior. Kilmer found that increased social enjoyment may not be as much a result of the alcohol as of drinkers’ own expectations.

Kilmer also described the risks of excessive alcohol consumption, defining alcohol poisoning as “a dose of alcohol big enough to shut the body off,” and explaining blackouts cause “way more damage to the brain than we ever previously knew.”

He encouraged students to work backward from a BAC chart to ensure they do not exceed the point of consumption where the negative effects of alcohol kick in.

“If you go up to and not exceed this point you can avoid the negative effects … you will avoid hangovers, blacking out [and] throwing up,” Kilmer said.