Why Backup Plans Might Not Work

by Pamela J. Hobart

You can't always get what you want, so the adult thing to do is to line up a next-best option. But, as it turns out, having a backup plan might be a bad idea. Though, the backup plan seems like a common sense, responsible way to deal with possible failure or bad luck, perhaps its mere existence can sap your motivation and determination. Should you just wing it instead? It's complicated.

This new research come from professors at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. They gave participants in the experiment a sentence-unscrambling task to complete, letting them know that successful unscramblers would receive a snack or the opportunity to leave the experiment early.

Some of the participants were asked to come up with different ways of finding food on campus and saving time that day, to simulate the psychological effect of having a backup plan in case the original goal (finishing the task well) did not work out. In the end, participants with a backup plan were less successful at the sentence-unscrambling task, suggesting that having a backup plan harmed their performance. The researchers concluded that the backup plan effect works by diminishing desire to achieve the goal. Reduced desire means reduced effort and reduced performance. Not good.

So should you make backup plans in your real life or not? The first thing you need to do is to accurately assess the degree to which achieving your goal is in your control. Something like passing your next calculus exam is probably well within your control, but something like winning the lottery obviously isn't. When you have significant or total control over an outcome, those are the times when you should delay forming a backup plan. You don't want to preemptively give yourself excuses for regular old laziness. If you're a person who can't deal with uncertainty, not forming a backup plan might be really difficult for you, but it's worth a try.

On the other hand, if something you want is honestly mostly out of your control, you can hope for the best but should probably still plan for the worst. To stick with the extreme example of winning the lottery, it can't do any harm for you to think about how you'll pay your rent next month if you don't win, because whether you win the lottery was never meaningfully under your control in the first place.

Many goals can be reformulated in a way that focuses on the part you can control, so do this when you can. You can't resolve to be offered a new job at your dream company, but you can resolve to apply to one job per week. Oftentimes, when it comes to goals, consistency ends up mattering at least as much as luck or sheer talent. We know that people with an "internal locus of control," who believe that they greatly affect what happens in their own lives, are psychologically healthier. Whenever possible, err on the side of taking responsibility for what happens to you and see those backup plans become more and more unnecessary.

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