Helmet-wearing appears to affect decision-making around risk, study finds

Psychologist Dr Barbara Schmidt demonstrates the experimental setup. Photo: Jan-Peter Kasper/FSU

Evidence has emerged that helmet-wearing appears to lower the sensitivity of individuals to differences in risk.

This effect arises from the simple act of wearing the helmet, without necessarily employing it for the purpose for which it was designed, such as riding a bicycle or a horse.

The significance of some objects is so deeply entrenched in our psyche that we rely on them even when they are not actually helpful.

Most people wear helmets during a range of pursuits because they are convinced that they reduce the risk of head injuries.

The experiment carried out by researchers was developed after a recent study found that participants wearing a bike helmet behaved in riskier fashion in a computer‐based risk task when compared to control participants without a bike helmet.

Psychologists from Friedrich Schiller University Jena in Germany, in cooperation with the Canadian University of Victoria, hypothesized that wearing a bike helmet would reduce cognitive control over risky behavior.

They designed an experiment in which 40 people played a card game on the computer, in which participants chose between a high-risk and a lower-risk gambling option in each trial.

Half the participants wore a bike helmet under the cover story that the eye tracker mounted on it measured their eye movements.

During the game, the scientists used EEG technology to observe electrical activity in the participants’ brains, which led them to a discovery: 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.

“Therefore, we conclude that the helmet clearly has an impact on decision-making in the risk game,” said Dr Barbara Schmidt, who headed the study.

“Obviously, participants associate a feeling of safety with wearing the bike helmet.”

The psychologist Dr Barbara Schmidt with a bicycle helmet, on which an eyetracker is mounted. Photo: Jan-Peter Kasper/FSU

Cognitive control, as psychologists call the neuronal mechanism of weighing things up, is less pronounced when wearing a helmet.

“It is possible that this is a priming effect,” Schmidt said. “This means that the significance we associate with a helmet automatically has a cognitive effect that is also measurable in the brain.”

Influence on risk behaviour

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 study team, who reported their findings in the journal Psychophysiology, concluded that wearing a bike helmet is associated with lower cognitive control and lower sensitivity to risk differences.

Schmidt continues her research on psychological factors influencing risk behaviour.

In an earlier study, she had already clearly identified the “Frontal Midline Theta Power” as an indicator of weighing up alternatives in the decision-making process and thus laid 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.

Barbara Schmidt et al. (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

The study, published under a Creative Commons License, can be read here.


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