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Having A Backup Plan May Keep You From Achieving Your Goal, Research Finds

Having A Backup Plan May Keep You From Achieving Your Goal, Research Finds

“There is no reason to have a plan B because it distracts from plan A” ~Will Smith

Such a profound and thought provoking statement. But is it accurate?

Professor Jihae Shin, Assistant Professor of Management and Human Resources at the Wisconsin School of Business (University of Wisconsin-Madison) and Katherine L. Milkman from the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) conducted an experiment to research this topic and have concluded that it is–indeed–a very accurate statement. Their research proves that merely thinking through a backup plan, in most cases, reduces overall goal performance and hurts the chances of successfully achieving the primary goal.

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The Research

Shin and Milkman conducted a series of experiments set out to test the notion that backup planning does more harm than good. They set up a series of laboratory experiments to test this theory. In one experiment, participants were given a sentence-unscrambling task and told that if they showed high performance on the task, they would be given a free snack or the chance to leave the study early. One set of participants were then instructed to find other ways they could get free food on campus, or make arrangements to eat later in the day in case they didn’t do well enough to earn the snack or the early dismissal. And you probably guessed the outcome. Those that were able to make plans to get food later did not perform as well as the group that did not have other plans.

Through a series of similar experiments, the cohort was able to determine that making a plan B caused people to exert less effort and energy and to be less successful at attaining their primary goal.

An article published in Science Daily further investigates and validates that backup plans are not as beneficial as once thought. The article discusses the findings of scientists from the University of Zurich who have developed a new theoretical model to study the use and usefulness of backup plans.

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“Our model is based on a straightforward idea: backup plans change the way you pursue your goal, even if you aren’t using them, and even if you never use them,” said Dr. Christopher Napolitano, who is a researcher and lead author of their essay.

Simply put, research shows that the “backup plan effect” is counterintuitive and works by diminishing the desire to achieve the goal. Reduced desire means reduced motivation, which translates into a reduction in effort and performance.

Throw caution to the wind–cautiously

So are these research findings suggesting that we throw caution to the wind and chase our dreams with reckless abandon? Not exactly… It’s a bit more complicated than that.

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Research shows that only having a plan A works when the outcome of the goal is largely under your control. For example, winning the lottery should not be your only goal. The ability to reach that goal is largely outside of your control making it imperative that you have a plan B. However, if obtaining a college degree is your goal, having a backup plan may sabotage your efforts of toughing it out and seeing it through to the end. The backup plan effect is particularly counterintuitive when it comes to things like marriage and certain financial, educational and career goals. If you give yourself an out–you are probably going to take it.

However, scientists suggest that while making a backup plan can be detrimental and counterproductive, it does not mean that people should go through life without EVER having one. Experts say you could explore ways to mitigate the negative effects — such as being more strategic about when you make a backup plan.

“You might want to wait until you have done everything you can to achieve your primary goal first,” Shin suggests.

At the end of the day, investing too much time and energy in making backup plans could create a sort of ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ where one becomes more susceptible to using a well-developed backup plan, and subsequently failing to make a sufficient investment into succeeding with a plan A.

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Last Updated on August 22, 2019

The Lifehack Show Episode 5: Taking Learning to the Next Level

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In this episode of The Lifehack Show, we interview Scott Young, author of  Ultralearning:Master Hard Skills, Outsmart the Competition, and Accelerate Your Career.

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