Back Up Plans | Hidden Brain This week on Hidden Brain, researcher Katy Milkman explains why backup plans may make us less motivated, Dan Pink is back to discuss moral hazard, and NPR's Adam Cole ties it all together with a song.

The Best-Laid (Backup) Plans...

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Thanks for listening to HIDDEN BRAIN. NPR's brand new Politics podcast is where NPR's political reporters talk to you like they talk to each other. With weekly roundups, short takes on the news, and reporting from every stop on the campaign trail, you don't have to keep up politics to know what's happening this election year. You just have to keep up with them. Listen and subscribe to the NPR Politics podcast at and on the NPR One app. This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. On this week's episode, we're talking about backup plans. Researcher Katy Milkman shares her study on why it's not always a good idea to have a plan B.

KATY MILKMAN: It may make you less motivated to pursue your primary goals.

VEDANTAM: Dan Pink is here for another round of Stopwatch Science.

DANIEL PINK, BYLINE: So these are glorious times for scholars who research moral hazard.

VEDANTAM: And we invited Matthew McConaughey to talk about the importance of backup plans in the movie "Interstellar."


MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) Some kind of vehicle, a space station?

MICHAEL CAINE: (As Professor Brand) Both, plan A.

MCCONAUGHEY: (As Cooper) How do you get it off the ground?

ANNE HATHAWAY: (As Brand) That's why there's plan B.

VEDANTAM: But, Matthew was a little busy, so we went with our plan B and invited my friend Adam Cole from NPR Science Desk instead.

ADAM COLE, BYLINE: Hello, having some real flashbacks to junior prom right now.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Just kidding, Adam, you were always plan A.

COLE: That sounds a lot better, yeah.

VEDANTAM: So, Adam, just like the last time, I want you to listen to all the ideas in this episode and come up with a song that ties it all together. Do you think you could do that?

COLE: Well, I'll try. But if I can't do it, do we have some sort of backup plan in place?

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Here's the thing, Adam. We don't. And to understand why we don't, you need to listen to this next set of ideas. The researcher Katy Milkman at the University of Pennsylvania was very interested in what happens when we have backup plans. Here she is.

MILKMAN: We have this sense that having a security blanket or a backup plan B is a strategy that will be helpful to us. It'll make us more emotionally comfortable with our plans, and it'll make us feel like we're taking less risk.

VEDANTAM: Katy Milkman tells me that there is a surprising downside to having that kind of safety net. Here she is again.

MILKMAN: It may make you less motivated to pursue your primary goals, so because you know that all your eggs aren't in this one basket, you may feel more confident and comfortable relaxing and letting up and not pushing as hard toward your primary goal. Since you know things will be OK, you can always go with your backup plan.

VEDANTAM: They used a couple of different methods to figure this out.

MILKMAN: The first method, which absolutely does not prove cause and effect but does provide some tantalizing evidence, was to simply survey people in a train station.

VEDANTAM: So, Adam, when Katy Milkman told me that the first part of her study was at a train station, we decided we would try and replicate this ourselves, and we went down to Union Station in Washington, D.C., a producer and I, and ran a little experiment ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Do you have about five, 10 minutes to talk with us?

FIONA: Cool.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What is your name?

FIONA: Fiona (ph).

VEDANTAM: While walking through Union Station, we came across Fiona. She's a young woman from Kenya who was in Washington visiting her family. Her Romanian boyfriend was down the hall buying bus tickets to New York. Fiona and Rasvon (ph) are planning on moving to the United Kingdom together, but it's challenging for them to get the right visas.

FIONA: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: So plan A is that you just get the visa and get to the U.K.

FIONA: And get a job there.

VEDANTAM: And get a job there, really (unintelligible).

FIONA: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: What's plan B?

FIONA: Plan B is maybe Germany or something, close enough...


FIONA: ...Because I have family in Germany, so...


FIONA: ...It might be easier to be in Germany.

VEDANTAM: You are keeping a lot of options open.

FIONA: A lot of options because with visas, you never know. So I need, like, plan A to zed, yes.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) So here's the question. When you have so many options, do you think that it actually distracts you from focusing on plan A, that having plan B, C, D, E, F, G, that it actually makes it less - you're less focused on plan A because you have all those other things at the back of your head?

FIONA: No, I'm very focused on plan A, hoping it works. But you know, I'm trying to be pessimistic so that I'm not disappointed if plan A doesn't work out, OK, fallback plan, fallback plan. It just makes it - makes me more calm. In case of anything going wrong with plan A...


FIONA: ...I know I have a B, C or...


FIONA: So with everything in my life, I always have, you know, other plans on the side.

VEDANTAM: You have backup plans?


VEDANTAM: Let me ask you a question. Has there ever been a time in your life when you have not had a plan B or C because you've just said, this is the only thing that I want, there's nothing else that's going to be acceptable, and therefore, I'm not going to have a plan B, C, D or E. I'm just...

FIONA: For me...

VEDANTAM: ...This is just plan A and nothing else.

FIONA: For me, no, I think my boyfriend works with that. I mean, he just works with one plan. I'm the one who's trying to teach him how to have millions of plans on the side. I mean, even a boyfriend, at least I've - I hope I don't have to go to plan B and C, but it's good to have plan, you know. OK, if we don't work out, this is what I'll do, you know (laughter).

VEDANTAM: So your boyfriend...

FIONA: There he is.

VEDANTAM: Before he comes, in the 30 seconds before he's here...

FIONA: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: ...Let me ask you, so if he doesn't work out, what's the plan B?

FIONA: Every girl has people that maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, every girl, even she does.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

FIONA: You love one person, but if something doesn't work out, there's that guy, possible, possible, possible. Everyone has that.

VEDANTAM: And so...

FIONA: I don't know about men, but women has.

VEDANTAM: So you actually have this list of people in your head...

FIONA: Possibilities.

VEDANTAM: ...And you've basically said, this person right now that you're with is 80 percent, but there's a 75 percent chance of someone...

FIONA: Some of them maybe even 40 percent, but it's still in the line.

VEDANTAM: But it's still in line. You keep them in the line.

FIONA: They're better than zero, you know?



VEDANTAM: I see. Is this your boyfriend?


VEDANTAM: And we were just talking about - we are NPR reporters, and we're doing a story that looks at how people make plans and how they think about their plans. And she was talking about the different strategies and approaches that you both have in your personalities.


VEDANTAM: So when you're making plans, do you often have a plan B and say, if this doesn't work out, that's going to work out? She was saying that you just are very focused on the things that you want to do.

RASVON: Yeah, this is - I don't want to be in a situation when I feel vulnerable, especially in another country when I travel, if it's a traveling plan. So every time I look at other options, you know, the worst case scenario with what can go...

VEDANTAM: So you actually do keep options?

FIONA: Yeah, but he's more focused on plan A.

RASVON: Yeah, I focus because I also don't accept failure in my plan. Everything has to go according to the plan.

VEDANTAM: So in general, for the big things in your life, not, you know, how to get to Philadelphia and which bus to get, but for the big things in your life - where are you going to work and who are you going to marry and - do you actually have very clear ideas of what you want and say, this is what's going to happen, and I'm going to stick to that?

RASVON: I'm trying to impose this philosophy of life. I think before I believed in more natural, and things just happen. But I'm thinking lately - I took this approach - I need to know what I want because otherwise, it will not just come to me. I need to be - to step up, take decisions, and go with it, not let it just come with karma. So nowadays, I feel I'm imposing myself this philosophy of knowing what I want. I want this, and why do I want this, and stick to it.

VEDANTAM: So in terms of romantic life, do you have a plan B if she doesn't work out? Or are you saying, this is the one, and I'm not going to think about any other plans or plans and options?

FIONA: Very good question.

RASVON: Very good question, I don't have a plan B. I'm sticking to plan A. I'm sticking to my decision, and I will make it work. If I start with a plan B in a relationship, I think is - yeah, I'm thinking of the worst case scenario, but alcohol will get me through that. I don't need another plan B. But now I'm sticking to plan A because I think I'm doing a mutual decision in the moment or I hope I'm doing it.

VEDANTAM: So I'm fascinated because you are actually saying that having a plan B can affect how much you focus on plan A.

RASVON: On the plan A, then so I guess maybe first when I talked about focusing on when I'm traveling, maybe I look like a control freak. But I also think plan B makes you relaxed and think, yeah, whatever, let's just have a drink, and if you miss the bus, you take the second one. Let's just not give her all your attention because if it's not going to work, there's plenty of fish in the sea. But this will just make you relaxed and maybe not focused enough because the plan B is also comfortable. Plan B is always the comfort zone. You go back. There are plenty of buses. There are plenty of girls. There's plenty of this. It's back to the comfort zone where you don't have to step up, look at the time, bring flowers, give kisses.

COLE: Well, I think that Rasvon (ph) has just written the song himself. That was very poetic.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

COLE: But what's the science behind this?

VEDANTAM: So, Adam, Katy Milkman wanted to find out the evidence as well. She decided take her research out of the train station and into the laboratory.

MILKMAN: And what we did is we gave participants a shared goal. They all had the same goal, which was to achieve high performance on a task we'd assigned to them. And in one study, we told them that if they achieved that high performance, they would get to finish up five minutes early. So they'd get the same pay that they were expecting to receive, but they'd have five extra minutes in their day to do with whatever they pleased. And one group, we asked them before they pursued this task to think about another way that they could save five minutes today if they didn't achieve the goal of getting five minutes back in our study. A second group we asked to simply brainstorm about what one could do with five minutes, to hold brainstorming constant. And then a third group was a control group, and they had no initial instructions. They just began the task. And what we found is that the group who had thought about a backup plan, about another way that they could save five minutes today, achieve significantly less success on the task we assign them. They worked less hard, they solve fewer puzzles, and this was significantly fewer than people in either of our control groups.

VEDANTAM: So this is actually a disturbing finding in some ways because it really suggests that this very normal and perhaps even wise course of action, which is to have a plan B, to have a safety net when you're embarking on something difficult and dangerous, really has a downside. I mean, there's a real tension here.

MILKMAN: That's right. I think there is a really important tension here. And again, what I don't want to say is that it means we should be done with backup plans because they provide real value. And all we're trying to show here is that there's a downside we might not be appreciating, and that we should try to find ways to stay equally motivated even if we do want to provide a safety net for ourselves.

VEDANTAM: How do we go about doing that? I mean, this has been found in similar studies. If you look at people wearing helmets, for example, when they go bicycling they take more risks as they're bicycling. If you ask people to wear seatbelts in cars, they now drive a little bit faster than if they were not wearing seat belts. And I don't think, as you're saying, the implication is we should eliminate seatbelts and ask people not to wear helmets. But how do we get around this human tendency to say, I'm protected and therefore I can take a chance?

MILKMAN: That's an absolutely fabulous question. I think it's the big question that the study raises. And unfortunately, we don't know the answer. But I do think awareness is always a good start, so recognizing that there is this downside, that there is this risk of feeling too comfortable, of feeling too confident. At least hopefully, that can begin to combat it.

VEDANTAM: I'm wondering - in your own life, Katy, do you make backup plans?

MILKMAN: I absolutely make backup plans.

VEDANTAM: Give me an example of backup plans that you've made.

MILKMAN: Oh gosh. That's a good question. I'm trying to think of my latest backup plan. So Jihae Shin was a doctoral student here at the University of Pennsylvania, at the Wharton school. And she was preparing to go on the academic job market hoping to find a fabulous faculty job. And she came into my office and said she was a bit worried about having a backup plan, making a plan B in case she didn't get that job, because she was worried it might demotivate her. Maybe one interesting implication is to think about whether or not you can outsource the job of backup plans. So as a student's advisor, for instance, perhaps they can focus solely on the primary plan of getting a job and let the advisor worry about the backup plan of where we'll find them a postdoctoral scholarship if they don't find a faculty position. Maybe that's the best of both worlds. The student stays motivated and feels that they only have a plan A, no plan B. But the advisor's taking care of offsetting the risk by worry about the plan B in the background.

VEDANTAM: I think for this plan to work, you have to have an advisor that sends signals that they may be unreliable.

MILKMAN: (Laughter).

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) And that would send a message that the advisor actually can't be trusted to come up with a proper backup plan, which would motivate you to really focus on your primary goal.

MILKMAN: That's right. Or you could simply have an advisor who's very quiet and doesn't signal one way or the other. And hopefully that will provide enough uncertainty that the student will work very, very hard.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) Thank you so much for talking with me today.

MILKMAN: My pleasure. Thank you.

COLE: So, Shankar, have you been coming up with a backup plan secretly in case I fail?

VEDANTAM: You know, Adam, I think the point of Katy Milkman's research is I shouldn't tell you if I have a backup plan because if I do, it's going to make you slack off and think you have a safety net - so absolutely not, Adam.

COLE: Wow, my heart rate is rising as we speak. I guess I'll furiously take more notes.

VEDANTAM: Wonderful. Now we're going to take a short break. When we come back, I'm going to play a game of Stopwatch Science with my friend Daniel Pink. Dan and I will talk about a phenomenon called moral hazard. And the idea of moral hazard is that when you think you have a safety net, when you know that you have a backup plan, a plan B, you will take plan A less seriously, and as a result, all sorts of bad things happen.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Support for this podcast and the following message comes from Boll & Branch, the first brand of bedding to be certified fair trade. Their sheets are made with entirely organic cotton, and they've been called the most comfortable sheets in the world. In fact, three US presidents sleep on Boll & Branch, and now HIDDEN BRAIN listeners can visit to receive $50 off and free shipping. Just go to B-O-L-L-A-N-D-B-R-A-N-C-H dot com and enter promo code brain. Support also comes from ShareFile, the easy-to-use business solution from Citrix that allows you to be in control over the files you share with clients, coworkers and vendors. ShareFile allows you to securely and reliably share, edit and sync files from any device anywhere. To start a free trial and get 25 percent off your first three months, go to

VEDANTAM: Welcome to another edition of Stopwatch Science. I'm joined by senior Stopwatch Science correspondent, Daniel Pink. Hi, Dan.

PINK: Hey, Shankar.

VEDANTAM: Now, in addition to his role here on the HIDDEN BRAIN, Dan is also an author and a commentator. In Stopwatch Science, Dan and I challenge each other to present two pieces of research in under a minute each. Today, we're presenting studies about moral hazard. This is the idea that safety nets can sometimes cause us to take unnecessary risks. They change our behavior. There's no safety net here on Stopwatch Science, just a timer and a buzzer. Dan, can you tell me what sound I'm going to hear if I exceed my one minute?

PINK: Well, I've chosen the old car horn sound, like this...


VEDANTAM: That sounds a little like a rooster, doesn't it? I have decided that the sound that I'm going to play for Dan when he exceeds his time is this...


PINK: What is that?

VEDANTAM: That's the sound of a chimpanzee, Dan.

PINK: OK. Thank you, alright.

VEDANTAM: Dan Pink, your first minute starts right now.

PINK: So these are glorious times for scholars who research moral hazard. There's nothing like a financial crisis - it's really the full-employment act for moral hazard scholars, including Michael Aklin and Andreas Kern. While one is from Pitt, one is from Georgetown, and they did something really interesting. They had a theory that they decided to back up looking at some numbers. And they found - I'll go straight to the punch line - that if you want to predict which countries are going to have a financial crisis, look to see where US troops are deployed. Now, the reason for this is, once again, moral hazard. The thinking is that hey, if there are troops in a particular country, and the country goes south financially, big brother Uncle Sam is going to step up and bail the country out. Now, they also tested something. They said, wait, maybe we put troops in countries that are at risk of financial crisis. Eh, not the same...


PINK: Come on.

VEDANTAM: This is so interesting I'm actually going to let you go on. Keep going.

PINK: Now, do we put troops in places that are at risk of financial instability?

VEDANTAM: Exactly, yeah.

PINK: And the answer is no because there are other markers when US troops go there that actually indicate financial health. What it suggests is that when we deploy troops out there...


PINK: ...It makes countries say, hey, we're protected, we can take some risks.

VEDANTAM: And that's pretty much the standard definition of moral hazard.

PINK: You got it.

VEDANTAM: I think that's pretty amazing, Dan.

PINK: Thank you. So speaking of moral hazard, I'm going to turn on my stopwatch here. And I'm going to give you one minute. Now, remember the car horn will sound if you exceed your one minute. So get ready right now.

VEDANTAM: Alright, I'm going to be talking about bicycles and bicycle helmets in a very interesting experiment that was run in England some years ago. This is a study by Ian Walker, who's in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, or Bath - I'm not quite how they pronounce it. Anyway, what he did was he rolled on a stretch of highway either with his helmet on or with his helmet off and then measured, using a camera, how close cars came to him when he was wearing the helmet and when he was not wearing the helmet. And what moral hazard predicts is that when he seems to be protected because he's wearing a helmet, car drivers feel like they can take more risks because they feel that if I get close enough and he topples over, he's not going to die, he's wearing a helmet. And that's exactly what he found. When he was wearing a helmet, car drivers actually came closer to him - they drove closer. One of the interesting things he also found is that when he wore a woman's wig, fewer people came close to him because they had the stereotype that women drivers or women...


PINK: They honked at him because he was wearing a wig.

VEDANTAM: (Laughter) That's probably exactly what they did. But in this case they honked from some distance because their stereotype was women bicyclists were a little less stable than male bicyclists.

PINK: Very interesting. So I guess Shankar's message to all you kids out there is, don't wear a helmet, just put on a woman's wig.

VEDANTAM: I'm not sure I would say that but I'm not going to say more on that because I know Dan is just trying to buy time instead of paying attention to the fact that his one minute starts right now.

PINK: OK, so we talked about Uncle Sam. Now we're going to talk about an even higher power - God. There's some great research out of Stanford showing that when people hear references to God, they're willing to take bigger risks...


PINK: ...But only certain kinds of risks. So here's what they did. They said to people, do you want, for a fee, stare into the bright light that might harm your eyes? People who were reminded of God beforehand were more likely to do it.


PINK: Now, they also did - tested this with things that were - had moral content to them. So they said, do you want to learn how to bribe people? Do you want to learn how to parasail? And when people were faced with the opportunity to learn how to bribe people, something that had moral content, they were actually less likely to take that risk. So what this shows is that when it comes to physical risk - not anything that involves values - that being exposed to God - seeing things like In God We Trust, seeing something like the 10 Commandments - can make people...


PINK: ...Chirp like a chimpanzee

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: Yeah.

VEDANTAM: That was really interesting, Dan.

PINK: So because people feel protected - people feel protected by God so they'll take more risk. Now, Shankar, I have to say, in this case you're not protected by God or by United States military...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: ...Or by a wig. So you are all on your own, starting right now.

VEDANTAM: I'm happy to report that the study that I'm just about to tell Dan is going to destabilize him to the extent that he's probably going to forget about the stopwatch...


VEDANTAM: ...Because it has to do with how parents with college-going kids behave.

PINK: Uh-oh.

VEDANTAM: And Dan has kids who are just about to head off to college. And this is research by Laura Hamilton who looks at what the effect is of parents paying for their children when they go to college.


VEDANTAM: And what Laura Hamilton finds is that the more money parents pay for their kids, the less kids are required to sort of stand on their own in college, the worse that kids perform in terms of their GPA. It's not a huge effect, but what it finds is that when kids don't have to feel like their performance in college is actually on them, that there's somebody who is carrying them, that someone who is going to give the money, it makes them say, I'm just going to take it easy. I'm going to go to the bar. I'm just going to hang out with my friends. I'm going to pay less attention to my studies. So I don't know how this is going to change your behavior vis-a-vis your kids, Dan, but I'm going to tell you that it might be a good idea just to cut your kids off just like you're cutting me off right now.

PINK: Yeah, wow, that's actually quite fascinating. It makes me want to call my daughter and say, Sophia, it's been nice knowing you, but next fall...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

PINK: ...You're completely on your own. Good luck. I'm just trying to avoid moral hazard, darling.

VEDANTAM: If you do that Dan, just make sure you didn't tell her the idea came from me.

PINK: No, I won't.

VEDANTAM: All right, this has been another round of Stopwatch Science. I'm Shankar Vedantam.

PINK: And I'm Daniel Pink.

VEDANTAM: I'm back in the studio now with Adam Cole, producer reporter extraordinary from NPR's Science Desk, and we've challenged Adam to come up with a song that stitches all the ideas in this podcast episode together. Adam, have you gotten any ideas?

COLE: I've written down the downside to safety nets, a lack of focus on primary goals, the Kenya-Romania-Germany-U.K. couple...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

COLE: ...Moral hazard, plenty of girls, plenty of buses.

VEDANTAM: Writing a song is going to be a breeze for you.

COLE: That's right. I'm just going to go back to the skunk bear cave, and we'll see what I come up with.

VEDANTAM: All right, everyone. Adam is now out of the skunk bear cave. Was this a success?

COLE: I - well, I came up with something. I know that you're a huge fan of pop punk, and so...

VEDANTAM: Of course.

COLE: Famously, so what we've got here is a pop punk garage band...

VEDANTAM: (Laughter).

COLE: ...Entitled Moral Hazzard with two Zs...

VEDANTAM: Hazzard with two Zs. I love it.

COLE: ...With the song, "I Don't Need No Plan B."


MORAL HAZZARD: (Singing) They all say you better have a plan B, but I say no way. I don't need the security. My old man won't pay for university, and Uncle Sam won't prop up my economy. No backup plan because backups can distract me from my goal today. No safety net, my alphabet begins and ends with A. I don't need no plan B, no plan B. I don't need no plan B, yeah, yeah. It's not risk-free, but it's a good philosophy. I don't need no plan B, no plan B. When I bike, don't wear a helmet on my head because I like to wear this wig instead. I realize I'm no Matthew McConaughey. For you, I'd fly from Kenya to the U.K. All around the world there's lots of girls, but there is just one us. You make me flip, your love's a trip, and I won't miss that bus. I don't need no plan B, no plan B. I don't need no plan B, yeah, yeah. There's other fish in the sea, but you're the only one for me. I don't need no plan B, no plan B. I got my eggs in one basket, my money in one place. Every day's fantastic because I get to see your face. But I know what's on your mind, Stu and Steve and Stanley. Forget those other guys. You don't need no plan B. You don't need no plan B, no plan B. You don't need no plan B, yeah, yeah. There's other fish in the sea, but you're the only one for me. You don't need no plan B, no plan B. I don't need no plan B. You don't need no plan B. We don't need no plan B. We don't need no plan B, no plan B.

VEDANTAM: Adam Cole, thank you so much for playing our game.

COLE: Thanks for having me.


VEDANTAM: That was amazing.

COLE: Thank you.

VEDANTAM: The HIDDEN BRAIN podcast is produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman, special thanks this week to Adam Cole. You can find more about him at Skunk Bear on YouTube and Tumblr. Before I let you go, I'm wondering if you can do something for me. Can you let me know what you think of the podcast so far, what segments work for you? Email us at, or find a survey on our Facebook page. Until next week, I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.