Backup Plans May Keep You From Achieving Your Goal

Feeling more comfortable about the future and reducing uncertainty – to be prepared if things fail to go as expected, have been the important benefits of making a backup plan. However, a new study challenges the conventional wisdom, as it talks about its potential cost that we rarely think about.

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Jihae Shin, assistant professor of management and human resources at Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Katherine L. Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, find through series of experiments, that, finding hope in a backup plan can reduce goal performance and actually hurt the chances of successfully achieving our goals. The researchers emphasize on understanding these costs, especially, in those cases where goals can only be achieved through effort. But, if luck is involved, making a backup plan won’t reduce goal performance.

I was talking with Katy about how sometimes I was hesitant to make a backup plan, because somehow I thought it might hurt my chances of success in my primary goal,” Shin says. “Katy thought it was an interesting idea and we decided to test it.

Read also: The Impact of Self-Image on how we Attain Goals

Participants of the study were given a sentence-unscrambling task, with grace of being given a free snack or the chance to leave the study early, if they do well in the task. Another group of participants were asked to devise ways with which they could get free food in case they didn’t do well enough to earn the snack.

Experiments revealed that those who had backup plans showed lower performance on the task, and the factor responsible for this effect was a diminished desire for goal success.

The potential costs to making a backup plan should not stop you from making them, but, you can however find ways to reduce the cost by being more strategic about when you make a backup plan, the researchers advised.

Read also: Sharing Goal Reduces One’s Chance of Attaining It

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


Jihae Shin, Katherine L. Milkman. How backup plans can harm goal pursuit: The unexpected downside of being prepared for failure. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2016; 135: 1 DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2016.04.003

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