Study finds wearing a bicycle helmet increases risk taking on an unrelated task

Researchers in the United Kingdom have found that people tended to take bigger risks after putting a bicycle helmet on their head — even though the helmet had nothing to do with the risk involved in their current task.

The study, conducted by psychologists Tim Gamble and Ian Walker of the University of Bath, suggests safety equipment could have some unexpected — and ironic — effects on human behavior.

“If this laboratory demonstration of globally increased risk taking arising from localized protection were to be replicated in real settings, this could suggest that people using protective equipment against specific hazards might also be unduly inclined to take risks that such protective equipment cannot reasonably be expected to guard against. This is not to suggest that the safety equipment will necessarily have its specific utility nullified, but rather that there could be changes in behavior wider than previously envisaged,” the researchers wrote in their study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science.

Gamble and Walker recruited 80 participants for what was ostensibly a study about human eye movement. The participants were asked to wear an eye-tracking device while they completed various computerized tests.

For one group of participants, the eye-tracking device was mounted to a baseball cap. For the other group, the device was mounted to a bicycle helmet.

With the baseball cap or bicycle helmet on their head, the participants played a computerized game called the Balloon Analogue Risk Task. The game requires the participants to inflate an animated balloon. The more the balloon is inflated, the more fictional money the participant earns. But if the balloon bursts, all their money is lost.

The participants wearing bicycle helmets tended to pump up the balloons more than the participants wearing baseball caps. In other words, the participants wearing bicycle helmets were more likely to risk losing all their money by trying to maximize their score.

“These effects arose even though the helmet was introduced as a mount for an eye-tracking apparatus and not as safety equipment, and even though it could do nothing to alter participants’ level of risk on the experimental task,” Gamble and Walker noted.

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