The Downside of Making a Backup Plan – and What to Do About It

Always take backup.
We hear it all the time on cop shows; in everyday life, it translates to something like, “It pays to have a Plan B” or allusions to the Robert Burns poem about “the best laid plans” often going awry.
But new Wharton research shows that there is an important downside to making a backup plan – merely thinking through a backup plan may actually cause people to exert less effort toward their primary goal, and consequently be less likely to achieve that goal they were striving for. Jihae Shin, a former Wharton Ph.D. student who is now a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and Katherine Milkman, a Wharton professor of operations, information and decisions, detail their findings in the paper, “How Backup Plans Can Harm Goal Pursuit: The Unexpected Downside of Being Prepared for Failure,” which was published in the journal,Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.
The paper was inspired by a conversation that Shin and Milkman had when Shin was working to get an academic faculty job while completing the Ph.D. program at Wharton. While some of her peers were thinking about backup options in case they didn’t find a job in academia, Shin found herself not wanting to because she worried that, “if I make a backup plan, it could make me work less hard to achieve my goal, and ultimately lower my chances of success.”
“When people thought about another way to achieve the same high-level outcome, they worked less hard and did less well.”–Katherine Milkman
Shin and Milkman agreed that they should test Shin’s idea. In a series of experiments, they found that thinking through backup plans did quash people’s motivation to achieve their primary goal. For example, after all participants in one experiment were told that performing well on a task would earn them a free snack, or the privilege of leaving the study early, some were prompted to think about “another way they could have an extra 10 minutes or another way they could get a free snack,” Milkman notes. “When people were prompted to think about another way to achieve the same high-level outcome in case they failed in their primary goal, they worked less hard and did less well.”
The researchers add that the effect wasn’t about putting a concrete backup plan in place. “Just thinking about it — you haven’t invented a backup plan, you haven’t created a safety net, you’ve just contemplated the existence of one” — causes people to lose focus on their goal, Milkman says.
Outsourcing Plan B
But can you really get through life without contemplating backup plans? Milkman says no – and nor should you. “There are huge benefits to making a backup plan,” Milkman points out. “If you don’t have one in life, sometimes it can be really disastrous.”
What you can do, the researchers say, is to become more strategic about when and how to make a backup plan. “You might want to delay making a backup plan until after you have done everything you can to achieve your primary goal,” Shin says.
Or you can outsource it. Milkman notes that while Shin was focusing on her goal of landing a faculty job in academia, Milkman and Shin’s other mentors were thinking about what she could do if it didn’t work out. “In a work environment, if an employee is given a task, you can tell him or her not to think about failure; just put all your eggs in one basket and know that it’s not your job to think about a backup plan,” Milkman says. “That’s the boss’s job, and the boss doesn’t have to tell the employee that he or she is worrying about it.” Alternately, Shin adds, companies can give one group of employees the job of pursuing a goal, and another group the responsibility of coming up with backup plans.
“You might want to delay making a backup plan until after you have done everything you can to achieve your primary goal.”–Jihae Shin
The researchers note that the effect is only relevant to goals that are dependent on effort, rather than luck. In addition, while it’s often impossible for the most cautious among us not to think about what happens if our goals don’t fall into place, Shin says people can avoid making specific, detailed backup plans. “The more specific and detailed your backup plans, the more potent their negative effects will likely be,” Shin notes.
“My dad told me when I was coming to the U.S. to do a Ph.D. that, ‘Nothing valuable in life is achieved easily,’” adds Shin, “I believe that persistence and grit toward a goal, which can be affected by making a backup plan, could make a difference in deciding who succeeds and who doesn’t in that goal.” Shin says one next direction for the research would be to examine whether the attractiveness of the backup plan impacts people’s level of motivation to achieve their primary goal — whether making an unattractive backup plan would hurt motivation less than making an attractive backup plan.
That said, after their conversation about her job prospects, Shin suspected that Milkman might have been thinking about a backup plan for her. “For this I am thoroughly grateful,” Shin says.

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