“Risk compensation” is the theory that adopting certain safety measures can actually increase risky behavior by unduly increasing people’s sense of security.

In a Washington Post article earlier this month, Terence McCoy reported on a man who wants to apply the theory to football.

Erik Swartz, a University of New Hampshire professor of kinesiology, believes that the depressing incidence of head injuries and concussions in football can be reduced by, you guessed it, eliminating the helmets! Once helmets became hard polymer with interior padding, many coaches started teaching players to “lead with the head” when tackling or even blocking. The resulting “spearing” of those tackled or blocked has also caused many concussions and neck injuries in the tacklers and blockers. One should note that rugby, also a heavy-contact sport, sees a significantly lesser rate of such injuries, while no helmets are used at all.

As Swartz is well aware, there is some scientific basis for risk-compensation theory, but too few studies have been done. So he did a preliminary, experimental study with consenting players on the UNH football team. The results tended to confirm his theory. But, of course, further research is needed to replicate such results.

However, such further research may face obstacles. The UNH football coach, though now quite intrigued, thought Swartz “crazy” at first. And in other areas of life where risk compensation may be operative, many refuse even to consider the possibility.

Thus McCoy writes:

“In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI traveled into the heart of Cameroon — and the African AIDS epidemic — and proclaimed condoms ‘increases the problem’ of HIV transmission. The backlash was immediate and absolute. The Washington Post even reprinted a cartoon that depicted the Pope lauding Africans dying of disease: ‘Blessed are the sick, for they have not used condoms.’

But some social scientists — who disagreed with his politics — said the pontiff may have been referring to risk compensation. ‘When people think they’re made safe by using condoms at least some of the time, they actually engage in riskier sex,’ Harvard researcher Edward C. Green wrote in an editorial in the Post. The same, some research has shown, goes for skiing with a helmet. One study, which analyzed more than 700 skiers and was published in Wilderness & Environmental Medicine, said ‘helmet use is one of the factors influencing risk-taking on the slopes’ for men younger than 35.”

Perhaps if the theory of risk compensation were borne out by repeated sports studies, people would be more open to considering it in an area of life where the consequences of risky behavior are far more widespread.