Every weekend, the streets of downtown Blacksburg are alive with Virginia Tech students.
Recently, however, on Thursday and Friday nights, a research team from a Tech psychology lab has been observing the effects of alcohol on people’s behaviors and perceptions.
Past studies have shown that 80 to 90 percent of college students consume alcohol and participate in risky behavior related to alcohol.
Ryan Smith, a graduate student at Tech, is the brain behind this experiment.
As a member of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems at Tech, he is continuing his eighth year involved in this alcohol study.
Smith and his research team survey up to 200 people every night.
“You see some pretty interesting things,” Smith said.
With two teams posted outside the Lyric and Big Al’s, the researchers are able to survey random students walking by and study the effects of intoxication.
Working downtown is the safest place for Smith and his research assistants, and they are able to interact with the community, rather than in a specific laboratory setting.
Smith’s research team is composed of undergraduate psychology students who must apply for the position.
Many of the students have personal reasons that drove them to participate in alcohol research.
Random passersby are asked if they would like to take a free Breathalyzer. If they agree to participate, they give their verbal consent and state they are more than 18 years old. All participants in the study remain anonymous.
The participant is shown a picture and then completes a survey about the emotion that the picture is conveying, a test designed to gauge the emotional recognition of the participant.
The Institutional Review Board must approve all the surveys used by the researchers.
Surveys cannot be used until all changes from the board are implemented.
After survey has been completed, the participant swishes a sip of water around his mouth to get all of the residual alcohol out and make the Breathalyzer accurate.
“If I took a shot, then a Breathalyzer, it would look like I was about to die,” Smith said.
The participant then takes the Breathalyzer and gets a mark on his hand so he cannot participate in the survey that same night. The Breathalyzers used are accurate to a 0.005 blood alcohol content.
All participants are surveyed separately.
“We can’t have friends help, that would bring a bias into the project,” Smith said.
After the participant takes the Breathalyzer, the researcher provides feedback to show how safe the participant is being in regards to alcohol. If the participant’s BAC is over 0.05, the participant is advised not to drive.
With the research acquired, the researchers look for a correlation between the accuracy of emotional facial recognition and the BAC of participants. With a high BAC, participants are less able to pick up on social cues, and have an overall lower accuracy in distinguishing emotions.
Right now, the research team is studying the effects of alcohol on emotional recognition. In the past, Smith and his team have studied sexual assault, drinking intentions and motivations, alcohol advertising influences and the effect that the April 16, 2007, shootings on the Tech campus had on students’ drinking habits.
The research project will end as soon as the temperature is regularly below freezing at night. The Breathalyzers do not work as well when the temperature is that low, and it would interfere with the accuracy of the project.
Smith and his colleagues have traveled to multiple conferences to present their work. Recently, Smith has presented to the Virginia Psychological Association in Norfolk and the American Psychological Association in San Diego.
Smith works under Tech psychology professor Scott Geller, who founded CABS. Geller has been involved in this type of alcohol research for more than 20 years.