The scientists, led by Dr Tim Gamble and Dr Ian Walker, measured sensation-seeking behaviour and analysed risk taking in adults aged 17-56 using a computer-based simulation. The individuals in the study wore either a bicycle helmet or a baseball cap, which they were told was just there to support an eye-tracking device.
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They were then tasked with inflating an on-screen animated balloon whilst wearing either the cap or the helmet and their tendency to keep on inflating the balloon was used to measure their level of risk taking.
Dr Ian Walker says: “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. 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.
“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.”
In their experiment, Dr Ian Walker and Dr Tim Gamble split participants into two groups: half wore a bicycle helmet and half wore baseball caps.