Jihae Shin was a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, preparing to enter the academic job market. She had set her sights on finding a fabulous faculty position, but wasn't sure she was going to get one.

The safe thing was to have a backup plan — to apply for a number of other jobs as well. But the thought of doing so made her worried: would the presence of the backup options diminish her motivation to get the job she really wanted?

She couldn't get this idea out of her head, so she approached Katy Milkman, a professor at Wharton, for her advice. Milkman and Shin realized that this might be an interesting topic for research.

"We have this sense that having a security blanket or a backup plan B is a strategy that will be helpful to us," Milkman says. "It will make us feel like we're taking less risk."

But after researching this question, they found that Shin's intuition was right: having a backup plan can in fact make you less motivated to pursue your primary goals.

"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 back up plan," Milkman says.

Milkman isn't suggesting we get rid of backup plans altogether. "They provide real value," she concedes. "All we're trying to show here is that there is a downside that 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."

Stopwatch Science

Author Dan Pink is back for another round of Stopwatch Science. Dan and host Shankar Vedantam continue the discussion about the potential downside of safety nets, and bring in research about moral hazard. This is a curious phenomenon researchers have found: that when people feel they are protected against a danger, they are more likely to take risks.

  • Ian Walker rode his bike on a stretch of highway with his helmet on and with his helmet off, and measured with a camera how close cars came to him. What moral hazard predicts is that drivers would come closer to him when he was wearing a helmet — and indeed, that's what he found.
  • Daniella M. Kupor, Kristin Laurin, and Jonathan Levav found that reminders of God made people more likely to take physical risks, especially if they perceived God as "a reliable source of safety and protection."
  • And research by Laura Hamilton perfectly revealed the paradoxical effects of safety nets. She finds that the more parents invest in their kids' college expenses, the more likely they are to graduate — evidence that providing children with safety nets can lead to good outcomes. However, she also finds that the greater the "parental aid," the worse the children's academic outcomes, in terms of GPA.


Listen to the end of the episode to hear Adam Cole's song tying all these themes together, and find more from Adam Cole on NPR's Science Tumblr, Skunk Bear.

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