Wearing a bike helmet ‘increases risk-taking behaviour’

Despite new findings cyclists should still wear helmets, says author of risk study

The results do not mean cyclists should not wear helmets, but rather “that the whole topic is far more complicated than most people think,” said Dr Tim Gamble. File photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

The results do not mean cyclists should not wear helmets, but rather “that the whole topic is far more complicated than most people think,” said Dr Tim Gamble. File photograph: Toby Melville/Reuters

 

Wearing a helmet subconsciously increases the wearer’s tendency to take risks, a new study has shown.

According to the study, previous research shows that humans take more risks when we feel safer, and that includes when we wear protective clothing.

But a new paper published in the journal Psychological Science shows that even when the protective clothing has no obvious advantage to personal safety, people’s general level of risk-taking increases.

Researchers at the University of Bath in the UK set up a false “eye-tracking” experiment, in which participants thought only their eye movements were being observed.

Tracking eye movement involves wearing headgear with sensors placed above the eyes - in this case, the equipment was either mounted on a cap, or on a bicycle helmet.

Each of the 80 people being tested was randomly assigned to wearing a baseball cap rig or a bicycle helmet version.

While wearing either the helmet or the hat, participants played a game that involved clicking a button to inflate a balloon on a computer screen. For every click, money was earned; but the bigger the balloon got, the more likely it was to pop.

The game allowed players to play conservatively and “bank” the money at any stage, resulting in less risk, but also a smaller chance of a pay-off.

Players also took a questionnaire that measured levels of “sensation seeking”.

Researchers found that those who wore the helmet scored “significantly higher” on measures for both risk-taking and sensation seeking, despite the fact that the helmets did not actually reduce any risk during the task.

One of the paper’s authors, Dr Tim Gamble, says the results do not mean cyclists should not wear helmets, but rather “that the whole topic is far more complicated than most people think”.

“If feeling protected does make people generally more reckless - which is what these findings imply - then this could affect all sorts of situations, perhaps even how soldiers make strategic decisions when wearing body armour,” he said.

Dr Ian Walker, another researcher behind the findings, says similar studies have looked at “risk compensation”, including the suggestion that drivers behave differently while wearing seat-belts, or that American football players tackle more aggressively while wearing a helmet.

The full study can be found here.