Helmet-wearers take more risks, study suggests

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Participants from the control group, left, wore an electrode cap and a shower cap during the experiment. The helmet group wore a bike helmet with an eye-tracker that was not used, as demonstrated by psychologist Dr Barbara Schmidt at right.
Participants from the control group, left, wore an electrode cap and a shower cap during the experiment. The helmet group wore a bike helmet with an eye-tracker that was not used, as demonstrated by psychologist Dr Barbara Schmidt at right. © Jan-Peter Kasper/FSU

Wearing a helmet appears to have an impact on decision making, and gives wearers a feeling of safety during risky activities, a German study suggests.

Psychologists from the Friedrich Schiller University Jena, Germany in cooperation with the Canadian University of Victoria conducted an experiment whereby 40 people played a computer card game. Participants chose between a high-risk and a lower-risk gambling option in each trial. Half of the participants wore a bike helmet under the cover story that the eye tracker mounted on it was to measure their eye movements.

Most people wear helmets during horse riding, cycling, driving a motorbike, or skiing because they are convinced that such gear reduces the risk of head injuries, the researchers said. “These perceived benefits notwithstanding, some research has highlighted an adverse effect of helmet wearing in that people tend to take more risks when wearing a helmet than when not wearing one. This adverse effect, termed risk compensation, has been addressed by several related theoretical frameworks including the most popular but highly controversial theory, called risk homeostasis, and an alternative framework called risk allostasis. Similar concerns about risk compensation have been discussed for other safety‐related tools such as seat belts, airbags, safety goggles, or vaccinations.”

In the German study, researchers hypothesized that wearing a bike helmet would induce a sense of security in participants, which in turn would diminish cognitive control over risky behavior even in task domains that are entirely unrelated to traffic such as computer‐based risk games.

During the game, the Jena scientists used EEG to observe what was happening in participants’ brains, which led them to find that the so-called “Frontal Midline Theta Power” – the brain activity that characterises the weighing up of alternatives in the decision-making process – was much less pronounced in the helmet wearers.

Psychologist Dr Barbara Schmidt wearing a bicycle helmet, on which an eyetracker is mounted.
Psychologist Dr Barbara Schmidt wearing a bicycle helmet, on which an eyetracker is mounted. © Jan-Peter Kasper/FSU

“Therefore, we conclude that the helmet clearly has an impact on decision-making in the risk game. Obviously, participants associate a feeling of safety with wearing the bike helmet,” said Dr Barbara Schmidt, who led the study. She said that cognitive control, as psychologists call the neuronal mechanism of weighing things up, was less pronounced when wearing a helmet. “It is possible that this is a priming effect,” said Schmidt. “This means that the significance we associate with a helmet automatically has a cognitive effect that is also measurable in the brain.”

The helmet and the no-helmet group were comparable concerning their trait anxiety, which is why the discovery is not attributable to a pre-existing group difference.

The team wrote: “Another relevant concept in this regard is priming. According to this concept, the bike helmet might act as a conditional stimulus (prime) to activate cognitive and emotional processes simultaneously that have been generally associated with the purpose of helmets. For example, helmet-wearing could reduce anxiety about potential injury and other dangers, while also reducing levels of negative affect. Thus, the bike helmet could prime feelings of safety that relax cognitive control, which in turn affects risky behavior.”

Schmidt is continuing her research on psychological factors influencing risk behaviour. In an earlier study, she clearly identified the “Frontal Midline Theta Power” as an indicator of weighing up alternatives in the decision-making process, thus laying the foundation for her current work.

“Investigating neuronal parameters allows us to learn more about why we act the way we do – and how this can be influenced,” she said. “In the present study, we used the very subtle manipulation of wearing a bike helmet. But safety can also be suggested more clearly, for example during hypnosis.”

This is the connection to another central field of Schmidt’s work investigating the effect of hypnosis.

“It is stunning to observe how suggestions can influence brain activity,” she says. “In the hypnotic state, participants are very open to suggestions, for example, the suggestion of a safe place. Wearing a bike helmet can also be interpreted as a suggestion on a subconscious level. The current study shows that even such a subtle intervention significantly affects decision-making processes. Experiments like this help us to understand the mechanisms behind the effect of suggestions on decision-making processes in more depth.”

Barbara Schmidt, Luisa Kessler, Clay B. Holroyd, Wolfgang H. R. Miltner  (2019): Wearing a bike helmet leads to less cognitive control, revealed by lower frontal midline theta power and risk indifference, Psychophysiology, doi: https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13458

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