Wearing safety equipment gives a false sense of security and boosts appetite for danger

It appears that wearing a safety helmet actually encourages dangerous risk taking when cycling. In a recent study, Dr Ian Walker and Dr Tim Gamble from the University of Bath’s department of psychology, have demonstrated that wearing a safety helmet is likely to increase sensation seeking and can actually make people less safe whilst cycling.

The doctors believe that the finding of the study which were published in the journal: “Psychological Science”, call into question the effectiveness of safety advice, concerning the wearing of helmets for certain leisure activities such as cycling. The study also raises concerns for other issues, such as decision making during conflict / war zones.

The pair measured sensation seeking behaviour and risk taking in a group of adults aged between 17-56, they did this by using a computer simulation. The test participants all believed they were taking part in an eye tracking experiment and were divided into two groups, both tasked with inflating an on screen animated balloon. One group wore bicycle helmets and the other group wore baseball caps. Both sets of head wear were fitted with an eye tracking device.

Each inflation of the balloon allowed the test participants to earn a digital currency. At any stage participants could bank their currency earnings, but if the balloon burst all earnings would be lost. Over 30 trials, the researchers tested each individual’s desire to keep inflating the balloon and study their appetite for risk.

The pair were surprised by the results, “Where a helmet, rather than a hat, was used as the mount for a head-mounted eye-tracker, participants scored significantly higher on laboratory measures of both risk-taking and of sensation-seeking,” they said. “This happened despite there being no risk for the helmet to ameliorate and despite it being introduced purely as an eye-tracker.”

Dr. Ian Walker said he was puzzled by the findings of the study. “The helmet could make zero difference to the outcome, but people wearing one seemed to take more risks in what was essentially a gambling task,” he said. “Replicated in real-life settings, this could mean that people using protective equipment might take risks against which that protective equipment cannot reasonably be expected to help.”

Our conclusion: Wear a safety helmet but be aware of your level of risk taking. Just because you are wearing protective gear does not mean you are less likely to be involved in an accident and possibly be seriously injured or worse. Stay safe.

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