Jihae Shin of the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Katherine Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania carried out a series of studies to investigate how forming a backup plan affected people. The research was inspired by a conversation the two had when Shin was a PhD student at Wharton and was thinking about how to land a job in academia.
Shin found herself believing that she should go all in on academia, because coming up with a more realistic backup plan might actually derail her progress. Then she realized that attitude contrasted with some of the most common popular wisdom about achieving one’s goals. It was that contrast that persuaded her and Milkman to investigate the effects of having a backup plan.
Shin and Milkman carried out a series of experiments with hundreds of students on campus and people online to test these ideas. In one study, they gave students the task of unscrambling sentences, and told them that those who did well would be given a free snack or allowed to leave the test early. Some of the respondents were then told to come up with other ideas about where they could get free food or make up time later in the day, in case they didn’t perform well enough on the test. The other studies similarly offered some people rewards for performing well on tests, then asked some to contemplate backup plans in case they did not receive those rewards.
Their results showed that those who made those backup plans ended up performing worse on the task at hand. And the researchers’ follow-up questions showed that this was due, at least in part, to a diminished drive for success.
This could be because having a backup plan helps to reduce the negative emotions you expect to feel if you fail to achieve your goal, the researchers say. Past research suggests that those unpleasant emotions, painful as they are, are important for driving people to work toward their goals. “By making a backup plan, you are effectively constructing an emotional safety net, which may dampen your goal desire,” Shin and Milkman write.
In situations where luck or skill is required to achieve a goal, making a backup plan doesn’t appear to have the same potential to derail your progress, the researchers say. But in situations that require effort, you may want to weigh the costs and benefits of making a backup plan, lest you allow yourself to fall back on it prematurely.
If you’re working in a group, one option is to outsource your backup plan, the researchers say. You can leave one group of employees in a company in charge of the contingency plan, for example, and leave the rest to pursue the primary goal. If you’re on your own, however, you might want to wait until you’ve done everything you can do to achieve your primary goal before considering other options, Shin says.
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