"Long before it's in the papers"
February 02, 2016


Study: protective gear may make people more reckless

Feb. 2, 2016
Courtesy of the University of Bath
and World Science staff

Wear­ing a hel­met may make peo­ple gen­er­ally more reck­less—and thus con­ceivably less safe in some situa­t­ions, new re­search pub­lished in the jour­nal Psy­cho­log­i­cal Sci­ence sug­gests.

The in­ves­ti­ga­tors said that par­ti­ci­pants in a stu­dy—unaware it was meas­ur­ing risk-tak­ing be­hav­ior—took risk­i­er ac­tions in a com­put­er game while we­ar­ing a hel­met than oth­er­wise.

“This is not to say that peo­ple should­n’t wear safe­ty equip­ment, but rath­er to say that the whole top­ic is far more com­pli­cat­ed than most peo­ple think,” said psy­chol­o­gist Tim Gam­ble of the Un­ivers­ity of Bath in the U.K., co-author of the stu­dy.

Co-author Ian Walk­er, from the same school, added: “sev­eral stud­ies in the past have looked at so-called ‘risk com­pensa­t­ion’, sug­gest­ing that peo­ple might drive dif­fer­ently when we­ar­ing seat­belts, or make more ag­gres­sive Amer­i­can foot­ball tack­les when we­ar­ing hel­mets. But in all those cases, the safe­ty de­vice and the ac­ti­vity were di­rectly linked—there’s a cer­tain log­ic to sports peo­ple be­ing more ag­gres­sive when we­ar­ing equip­ment that is spe­cif­ic­ally in­tend­ed to make their sport safer. This is the first sug­ges­tion that a safe­ty de­vice might make peo­ple take risks in a to­tally dif­fer­ent do­main.”

Gam­ble said the find­ings call in­to ques­tion the ef­fec­tive­ness of cer­tain safe­ty ad­vice, no­tably in rela­t­ion to hel­mets for var­i­ous lei­sure ac­ti­vi­ties, in­clud­ing for cy­cling. But, the re­search­ers sug­gest, the con­clu­sions have wider-reaching im­plica­t­ions in oth­er con­texts too, po­ten­tially even the bat­tle­field.

Gam­ble and Walk­er meas­ured sensa­t­ion-seeking be­hav­ior and an­a­lyzed risk tak­ing in adults aged 17 to 56 us­ing a com­put­er sim­ula­t­ion.

Un­der the pre­tense that par­ti­ci­pants were tak­ing part in an eye-tracking ex­pe­ri­ment, the re­search­ers split 80 par­ti­ci­pants in­to two groups: half wore a bi­cy­cle hel­met and half wore a base­ball cap. In­di­vid­u­als were tasked with in­flat­ing an on-screen an­i­mat­ed bal­loon whilst we­ar­ing ei­ther the cap or the hel­met—which they were told was just there to sup­port an eye-tracking de­vice.

In the ex­pe­ri­ment, each infla­t­ion of the bal­loon earned par­ti­ci­pants points (a fic­tion­al cur­ren­cy) and they were told at any stage they could ‘bank’ their earn­ings. If the bal­loon burst, all earn­ings would be lost. Over 30 tri­als, the re­search­ers tested each in­di­vid­u­al’s propens­ity to keep on in­flat­ing and used this to meas­ure the like­li­hood of them tak­ing more risks.

“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,” Walk­er said.

“The prac­ti­cal im­plica­t­ion of our find­ings might be to sug­gest more ex­treme un­in­tend­ed con­se­quenc­es of safe­ty equip­ment in haz­ard­ous situa­t­ions than has pre­vi­ously been thought. 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.”

Pre­vi­ous stud­ies from Walk­er have al­so hinted that safe­ty equip­ment might not be as ef­fec­tive as many peo­ple as­sume. He has sug­gested that high-visibil­ity cloth­ing does not stop drivers overtak­ing cy­clists dan­ger­ously and that we­ar­ing a hel­met might make drivers pass cy­clists clos­er when overtak­ing.

Gam­ble added that “all this is not to say that peo­ple should­n’t wear safe­ty equip­ment,” but that “we need to be mind­ful of the un­in­tend­ed con­se­quenc­es which might ex­ist and not just apply ‘com­mon sense’ when it comes to ad­dress­ing safe­ty con­cerns.

“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 amour. This all sug­gests that mak­ing peo­ple safe in dan­ger­ous situa­t­ions is­n’t a sim­ple is­sue, and pol­i­cy­makers need to re­mem­ber this. Coun­tries that have tried to solve the is­sue of cy­cling safe­ty by mak­ing bi­cy­cle hel­mets com­pul­so­ry, for ex­am­ple, might want to ask wheth­er this is really the right ap­proach for mak­ing peo­ple safe.”

* * *

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Wearing a helmet may make people generally more reckless—and thus conceivably less safe in some situations, new research published in the journal Psychological Science suggests. The investigators said that participants in a study—unaware it was aimed at measuring risk-taking behavior—took riskier actions in a computer game while wearing a helmet than otherwise. “This is not to say that people shouldn’t wear safety equipment, but rather to say that the whole topic is far more complicated than most people think,” said psychologist Tim Gamble of the University of Bath in the U.K., co-author of the study. Co-author Ian Walker, from the same school, added: “several studies in the past have looked at so-called ‘risk compensation’, suggesting that people might drive differently when wearing seatbelts, or make more aggressive American football tackles when wearing helmets. But in all those cases, the safety device and the activity were directly linked—there’s a certain logic to sports people being more aggressive when wearing equipment that is specifically intended to make their sport safer. This is the first suggestion that a safety device might make people take risks in a totally different domain.” Gamble said the findings call into question the effectiveness of certain safety advice, notably in relation to helmets for various leisure activities, including for cycling. But, the researchers suggest, the conclusions have wider-reaching implications in other contexts too, potentially even for decision making on the battlefield. Gamble and Walker measured sensation-seeking behavior and analyzed risk taking in adults aged 17 to 56 using a computer simulation. Under the pretense that participants were taking part in an eye-tracking experiment, the researchers split 80 participants into two groups: half wore a bicycle helmet and half wore a baseball cap. Individuals were tasked with inflating an on-screen animated balloon whilst wearing either the cap or the helmet—which they were told was just there to support an eye-tracking device. In the experiment, each inflation of the balloon earned participants points (a fictional currency) and they were told at any stage they could ‘bank’ their earnings. If the balloon burst, all earnings would be lost. Over 30 trials, the researchers tested each individual’s propensity to keep on inflating and used this to measure the likelihood of them taking more risks, comparing those wearing a cap with those wearing a helmet. “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,” Walker said. “The practical implication of our findings might be to suggest more extreme unintended consequences of safety equipment in hazardous situations than has previously been thought. 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.” Previous studies from Walker have also hinted that safety equipment might not be as effective as many people assume. He has suggested that high-visibility clothing does not stop drivers overtaking cyclists dangerously and that wearing a helmet might make drivers pass cyclists closer when overtaking. Gamble added that “all this is not to say that people shouldn’t wear safety equipment,” but that “we need to be mindful of the unintended consequences which might exist and not just apply ‘common sense’ when it comes to addressing safety concerns. “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 amour. This all suggests that making people safe in dangerous situations isn’t a simple issue, and policy makers need to remember this. Countries that have tried to solve the issue of cycling safety by making bicycle helmets compulsory, for example, might want to ask whether this is really the right approach for making people safe.”