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Using a bar for his lab, researcher aims at myths

Professors at USF and HCC say alcohol abuse is all about expectations.

By JOHN PETRIMOULX

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 6, 2001


TAMPA -- Turn on any sports event and the message is unmistakable. Not the message in the game, but the message that pays for the game. The one about how good times happen when you drink. Or how what you drink makes you cool. Or how the right drink gets the girl.

USF psychology professor Mark Goldman is familiar with the pitches because he studies how they work. In a tiny but well-equipped lab tucked away in a research building on the USF campus, Goldman and his colleagues study what happens when people drink. Walking into his lab is like walking into an old-time corner bar or your best friend's party room.

A fully stocked bar with hanging glass-rack and barstools occupies a corner of the room. Wall mirrors and inflatables displaying brewery names and slogans complete the look, designed to help subjects forget they are in a research facility on a university campus.

Though he won't divulge the exact nature of his experiments, Goldman's research has established the importance of expectations in drinking. He and his team use what they have learned to help college students understand that the expected effects of alcohol are not what they seem.

Goldman cites social success as an example. "We show that social success is not related to the chemistry of alcohol," he says. "Alcohol affects you like some kind of brain damage -- it doesn't make you more social or sexier."

He goes on to explain the importance of expectations. "You may think you need alcohol to have a good time, but the alcohol is not creating the good time -- you are," he says. According to Goldman, alcohol abuse continues to be a problem on college campuses.

"The 18-24 age group is an especially important one to us," Goldman says. "It's when the amount of drinking peaks for most people."

Goldman's colleague, Jack Darkes, directs a program that takes their message to Hillsborough Community College students.

Part of a national research grant to develop strategies to deal with student alcohol abuse, the program began last October.

"To our knowledge, this is the only program of its kind at the community college level," Darkes says. Now delivered as part of existing classes, Darkes hopes to get the program included in new student orientation classes.

Goldman admits he and his team are fighting an uphill battle against the constant training and behavior modeling he says people receive from a very young age. The barrage of beer ads at sporting events is one thing.

But Goldman cites more subtle examples. His favorite is the segment in the movie E.T. when the lovable alien is alone in the house and finds a six-pack of beer in the refrigerator. He and his pal Elliott have formed a bond, so they experience each other's feelings. When E.T. gets drunk, Elliott is in school about to dissect a frog in biology class.

Elliott gets dizzy, then creates pandemonium in the lab by letting all the frogs loose. He caps his adventure by stepping on the back of a classmate to kiss a girl. According to Goldman, the message to E.T.'s young audience is when you get drunk, fun things happen.

When the federal government releases a comprehensive study on the problem of college student alcohol abuse this summer, Goldman will be there. He and Edward Malloy, president of University of Notre Dame, are the co-chairmen of a National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism subcommittee formed to find out how bad the campus drinking problem really is and what to do about it.

While not ready to release any results yet, Goldman says the overall news is not good.

"I think people will be surprised by the results," he says.

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