Could certain safety devices make us more prone to risk-taking? This is the question that two researchers from the University of Bath set out to answer, and they believe the results might have far-reaching consequences.
In their study, published in Psychological Science, they measured the sensation-seeking behavior of 80 adults (aged 17-56) using a computer-based simulation. The participants were told the study was about eye-tracking and a that a “device” to measure this was installed either on a baseball cap or on a bike helmet, which they were randomly assigned to wear.
The people taking part in the study were then tasked with inflating a virtual balloon on their screen. With each inflation they would earn points, but if the balloon popped they would lose all their earnings. For each individual, this was repeated 30 times, with the researcher comparing the likelihood of risk-taking behavior between those wearing a helmet and those with a baseball cap. Surprisingly, people wearing a helmet were more reckless.
“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,” said Dr. Ian Walker, one of the two researchers of the study, in a statement.
Co-author Dr. Tim Gamble added: “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. This all suggests that making people safe in dangerous situations isn’t a simple issue, and policy makers need to remember this.”
The researchers are obviously not telling people to stop wearing safety equipment. However, the study does indicate that unintended consequences could be generated in an attempt to reduce exposure to danger. This is not the first time psychologists have hinted at this phenomenon, but the latest results highlight the need to approach safety in a more sophisticated way.
“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,” said Dr. Walker. “This is the first suggestion that a safety device might make people take risks in a totally different domain.”