If you ask my friend Matthew why he doesn't wear a helmet while riding his bike on the busy streets of Los Angeles, he will snap at you, "Do you wear a helmet while driving your car?!" Then you get to hear a bunch of statistics about how driving is more dangerous than cycling. Anyway, Matthew is a delight. It also turns out, he might be right.

Researchers from the University of Bath published research today, Jan. 25, that suggests that wearing helmets actually increases risk-taking behavior, potentially putting the wearer at greater risk than if she or he weren't wearing a helmet at all. This is because, on the whole, not wearing a helmet makes people more cautious in their decision making.

To be fair, the researchers did not actually test this on people riding their bikes (which might be ethically questionable), but rather had their subjects play video games while wearing either a helmet or a baseball cap. The video game was gambling-based; participants watched a balloon inflate, and the bigger the balloon grew, the more points they earned. At any point, they could bank their points, but if the balloon burst, they lost all points for that round. 

To keep their subjects from knowing the purpose of the study, and thereby coloring the findings, the researchers told them that the study was an eye-movement-tracking study, and that the hat (or helmet) was simply there to attach a device that tracks eye movements. Even though the helmet-wearers had no idea that this was a risk-taking study, and even though the helmet made no difference to their safety in the laboratory, they still let their balloons inflate longer than their hat-wearing counterparts. In other words, they took bolder risks, seemingly because they were wearing a helmet.

There's a clear warning inherent in these findings: helmets obviously provide important physical protection, but they may actually diminish our psychological protection by subconsciously persuading us to take bigger risks. 

Co-author Tim Gamble (yes, Gamble) explains, "All 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.... If feeling protected does make people generally more reckless - which is what these findings imply - then this could affect all sorts of situations."

Of course, laboratory findings cannot always be generalized to the real world, but the psychologists say the discovery should help policy makers consider new angles when considering issues like helmet laws.

"This all suggests," says Gamble, "that making people safe in dangerous situations isn't a simple issue."

The study is published in the journal Psychological Science.

ⓒ 2021 TECHTIMES.com All rights reserved. Do not reproduce without permission.