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It stiffens up the steering to prevent tankslappers when going high speeds. Meaning, the handlebars go back and forth real fast and you can't control it, most likely ending in a wreck. Try the search, you'll find a ton of information on steering dampers.
 

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Basically, a steering damper is a shock absorber for your steering. One type (linear) even looks like one. The rotary type (like the Scott's unit, shown below) does the same thing, just in a different way.

In essence, the way they work is to apply resistance to turning forces on the bike's steering. Most of the better ones are adjustable (some can be dialed in while riding), and have additional features. For example, the Scott's (I'll use it since I have one and I'm more familiar with it than the others) has separate adjustments for sudden impacts (as you might get when hitting a pothole), and range of action, which sets the part of the steering arc in which it takes effect (there's no point to damping at the extreme ends of the arc).

Photo attached:
The adjustments are: the right knob (with pointer) sets how much damping. The (covered) left knob sets the sudden impact response. The two range adjustments (one on each side of the unit) are done by screwdriver - one the adjustment screws can be seen on the side, between the leftmost hex screws.

This particular unit is "reverse" mounted (as indicated by the "R" stamped on the faceplate) in order to allow the ignition key to fit. Usually they are oriented 180 degrees from this one on my 9r.

Hope this helps. I'm sure someone can post a pic of the "linear" variety - I'm just too lazy, lol.
 

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They're designed to stop headshake, meaning your handlbars moving back and forth really fast. The idea is to slow down the movement of the bars, think of the airshocks on the back of a hatchback car that don't let you slam the back end closed. In my experience, dampers help quite a bit, even for the non-competative rider. One of the biggest things I've noticed is that on the freeways I get less fatigued and I have more confidence, mostly because those water channels cut in the freeway no longer drag my bike wherever they want. In the end, I spend more time paying attention to the stupid ass cars around me rather than the channels or bumps in the road, and that's a good thing. I've also noticed a bit more stability coming out of turns in the twisties, but I have yet to do a track day and really put my damper to the test.
 

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You can get ones that opperate on centrifugal force, slow speeds are firly in active, while at a high speed the make it harder to turn the bars, they are difficult to learn but once you do you'll love it.
 
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