Back-Up Plans May Be Counterproductive

A new contrarian study suggests that merely thinking through a backup plan can reduce goal performance and actually hurt the chances of successfully achieving your goal.

Typically, creating a backup plan for organizational and personal goals has been viewed as a sensible way to deal with uncertainty — to be prepared if things don’t go as expected.

In the new study, researchers from Wisconsin School of Business discovered having a backup plan may cause people not to work as hard and to be less successful at attaining their primary goal.

Jihae Shin, assistant professor of management and human resources at the school, together with Katherine L. Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a series of experiments that pointed toward the detrimental effects from having a backup plan.

“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.”

Shin and Milkman set out to test the idea with a series of laboratory experiments. 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.

Some groups were then instructed to come up with other ways they could get free food on campus or save time later in the day in case they didn’t do well enough to earn the snack or the early dismissal in their current study.

Those in the groups making backup plans showed lower performance on the task, and a follow-up experiment revealed a key factor driving this effect was a diminished desire for goal success.

While there are important benefits of making a backup plan, such as reducing perceived uncertainty and making people feel more comfortable about the future, there may also be potential costs that have been less well known.

The researchers suggest that understanding those costs can be important, especially in those cases where goals can be achieved through effort. In instances where they can be achieved by luck or innate skill, on the other hand, making a backup plan is not expected to reduce goal performance.

The researchers suggest that while they find potential costs to making a backup plan, it does not mean that people should go through life without ever having them. They say you could explore ways to mitigate these costs — 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 says.

Source: University of Wisconsin