Helmets can reduce the risk of traumatic brain injury by almost 20%. But what if we take so many risks when wearing them that we lose the protective edge they provide? This could be the case, according to a study published this week. Researchers observed 80 cyclists under the guise of an “eye-tracking experiment,” pretending to track their eye-motion via a head-mounted camera as the participants inflated a virtual balloon. For some of the participants, the “eye-tracking devices” were mounted on helmets, while others just wore baseball caps, as can be seen in the picture of the equipment above. The further they inflated the balloon without it popping, the higher their reward and their risk-taking score. Participants wearing helmets inflated their balloons on average 30% more than those who wore caps, the team reports in Psychological Science. The finding could affect how we approach safety design and training, the authors say, as increased risk-taking behavior when using safety equipment might counteract the perceived benefit of the equipment. But what causes this effect in the first place? The underlying mechanism might be related to the concept of “social priming,” where people’s actions towards others are altered subconsciously due to exposure to particular words, cues, objects, or symbols. Importantly, this is the first time social priming has been shown to change people’s behavior even when they are not interacting with others, providing potential new insights into human behavior. So, next time you’re out riding with a helmet, think twice before attempting that wheelie.
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