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Sober Bars: Tapping Into the Placebo Effect

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Love bars but not drinking? Sober bars offer a placebo-alcohol experience. But does it really work?

Ruby Warrington, a journalist who came to view with alarm the toll that regular work-related drinking was taking on her health and mind, has organized a movement for what she calls the “sober curious,” which hosts events and retreats. She is part of a broader movement of what has been described as:

“a new generation of kinda-sorta temporary temperance crusaders, whose attitudes toward the hooch is somewhere between Carrie Nation’s and Carrie Bradshaw’s. To them, sobriety is something less (and more) than a practice relevant only to clinically determined alcohol abusers. Now it can also just be something cool and healthful to try, like going vegan, or taking an Iyengar yoga class.”

This movement has given rise to “sober bars,” like Getaway in Brooklyn, where people can socialize in a bar-like setting while drinking delicious and interesting virgin cocktails. One way of understanding sober bars is as a method for tapping into the intoxication buzz without the toxic part.

There is an expectancy effect that surrounds alcohol consumption. If you drink something expecting that it is going to make you drunk, it often makes you a little drunk, even if it’s only flavored water. This is related to the well-known placebo effect in medicine; patients who are given a sugar pill and told it is a potent medicine will often see significant health improvements.

More relevant to the phenomenon of sober bars, merely thinking about alcohol, by being primed with alcohol-related keywords or shown an alcohol-related ad, can make you feel and behave a bit drunk. So patrons of a sober bar, despite knowing they are being served virgin cocktails, are nonetheless exposed to unconscious alcohol-related cues.

Sitting in a bar-like setting, with the lights dimmed and music playing, and being served drinks that look and taste very much like alcoholic cocktails can therefore provide many, if not most, of the social benefits of drunkenness without the costs.

One team of researchers took advantage of expectancy effects to demonstrate to at-risk college drinkers that they could have just as much fun in an environment where they thought they were getting drunk as when they were served actual alcoholic drinks, which in turn helped to train them to socialize without the need for alcohol.

[Also read: “10 Affirmations for an Alcohol-Free Month.”]

The power of this effect has caused some commentators to conclude that the psychological and behavioral effects of alcohol are all produced by cultural expectations. This is especially the case in fields like cultural anthropology, where the dominant theoretical models see human experience as completely socially constructed from the ground up.

As we have noted above, however, it is clear that cultural expectations about alcohol are very much dependent upon, and driven by, the actual pharmacological effects of ethanol. It is not simply a coincidence that similar cultural expectations, throughout history and across the world, are attached to alcohol.

Drunkenness is conceptualized in ancient China and ancient Egypt and ancient Greece in quite similar ways because it is the product of the same chemical hitting the same sorts of brain-body systems. It has also become clear, since the advent of balanced placebo designs, that expectancy effects are not as powerful as some early research seemed to suggest. The ability to tease apart the results of thinking you are drinking when you are not and thinking that you are not drinking when you are has demonstrated that many psychological and behavioral outcomes are, indeed, being driven by the pharmacological effects of alcohol.

This suggests limits to the ability of sober bars to genuinely enhance sociality beyond simply physically bringing people together in an environment that encourages relaxation and conversation. Sober bars derive their power from, and are therefore dependent upon the existence of, “real” bars that serve alcoholic cocktails that actually do ramp up your BAC. In a world where nothing but near-beer and virgin cocktails existed, the cultural concept of alcohol would gradually lose its power.

Adapted excerpt from DRUNK: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization. Copyright © 2021 by Edward Slingerland. Used with permission of Little, Brown Spark, an imprint of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Keep reading: “15 Mantras for Sobriety.”