Imagine two aspiring entrepreneurs: Meg and Jen. They are equally capable and well-connected, and they are working on equally promising startup ideas. In fact, imagine that Meg and Jen differ in just one respect: Meg is thinking about what a good fallback job would be and how she plans to pursue it if her current startup fails while Jen is not.
Who do you think will work harder and in turn, have a better chance of success: Meg or Jen? Might merely thinking through a backup plan be enough to undermine Meg’s motivation and likelihood of success?
This was the question that we wanted to answer with our research. And yes, we find in a paper published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes that merely contemplating a backup plan can reduce the effort you put forth to achieve a goal, thus hurting your chances of achieving it. Most people think that making a backup plan is always a good idea, and previous scholarship has focused almost exclusively on the benefits of planning. However, we highlight an unintended cost of making backup plans: a lower chance of successfully achieving your primary goal.
We started our investigation with a simple survey at a large east-coast train station. Our research assistants approached people who were waiting for trains. We asked them to write about a goal they were pursuing and how much effort they were putting forth towards achieving their goal. Then, participants were asked if they had made a backup plan for their goal. Analyzing the data, we found that the people who had made a backup plan were putting forth less effort towards achieving their goals. Although this finding was consistent with our hunch about the risks of making backup plans, correlation does not equal causation. It’s possible that people who were working less hard towards their goal were more likely to make a backup plan because they knew they were more likely to need one. Or maybe, people who didn’t really care much about goal achievement to begin with were putting in less effort and were more likely to make a backup plan.
We wanted to find out whether the observed relationship between making a backup plan and effort was indeed casual: did thinking through a backup plan make people put forth less effort towards their goals, ultimately leading to lower chances of success? In one experiment, we brought undergraduates into a room and gave them the task of unscrambling scrambled words into sentences. We promised them an energy bar as a reward for high performance. We randomly assigned a prompt to half of these people that encouraged them to think through a backup plan to put in place in case they failed to get a free snack: we asked them to think of other ways they could find free food on campus in case they didn’t earn the free snack in our study. Sure enough, we found those who made backup plans before starting the task didn’t perform as well in the task. In subsequent experiments, we replicated our findings in other contexts with different rewards (e.g., money, saved time) and confirmed that this effect was not driven by mundane factors like being tired out from generating backup plans, or viewing the reward as less valuable.
So we’d found this robust effect, but we still wanted to find out why it was happening. Is making a backup plan reducing motivation or is it a source of distraction? In our final study, we dug into this question and found that people who thought through backup plans before working towards the goal in our study wanted the proffered rewards less intensely than others. So this suggests that thinking through a backup plan actually makes you want to achieve your primary goal less, which then hurts your effort, performance, and ultimately, your chances of successfully achieving your goal.
Fascinating, right? And probably disheartening to some! Now the question becomes, what do you do with this information? How can this research help you make better decisions, and at the same time still let you plan wisely when pursuing goals that you can’t be certain you’ll achieve?
First of all, it’s important to know that these results do not apply to all goals—they only apply to goals whose success is highly dependent on effort. Since we find that the negative effect of making a backup plan is reduced motivation and effort towards a goal, making a backup plan would not harm success on goals where success is not contingent on effort (e.g., winning the lottery). So feel free to make a backup plan without hesitation for how you’ll support yourself if you don’t strike it rich in Powerball!
Second, you may not have to choose between ‘making a backup plan now’ and ‘not making one ever’; it may be a question of when you make a backup plan. For example, you might want to consider making a backup plan after you have done everything you can to achieve your primary goal. In other words, consider making a backup plan after your goal-related efforts wrap up and the outcome is now in someone else’s hand (e.g., your coworker’s, a judge’s, etc.). If you are an entrepreneur, you might want to consider committing to one startup idea for a certain period of time, devoting your energy and attention to that one project during that timeframe, and then committing to start thinking about backup plans if and only if things haven’t worked out by your deadline. This same strategy could also apply when you are trying to get your dream job or applying to schools.
Third, if you manage multiple people or teams at work, you might want to assign the task of pursuing a certain goal (i.e., getting a product launched) to one person or team and the task of making a backup plan in case of goal failure to someone else. You might even want to consider making it a secret that someone else is thinking through backup plans. That way, you may be able to protect the motivation and performance of the people who are actively pursuing your organization’s primary goals while still managing risk and mitigating uncertainty.
Many of the goals we pursue in life require a great deal of effort, and we can’t be certain of achieving them. The insurance of having a backup plan is thus very attractive. However, this psychological insurance, just like other insurances, may come with a price.