Is Having a Backup Plan a Good Idea?

Conventional wisdom holds that having a backup plan is an important way to prepare for unexpected setbacks while pursuing a goal.

Conventional wisdom holds that having a backup plan is an important way to prepare for unexpected setbacks while pursuing a goal. However, recent study results challenged this popular notion by revealing that contingency plans may actually reduce students’ performance and motivation, ultimately holding them back.

To test the effectiveness of backup plans, researchers administered a sentence-unscrambling task to 160 college students, telling the participants that those who performed well on the task would be given a free snack and the opportunity to leave the study early. Some groups of students were also instructed to think of other ways they could save time or acquire free food in the event that they underperformed on the task.

After the experiment, those who were asked to devise a backup plan fared worse on the task, unscrambling fewer sentences than those without a plan B.

In a later follow-up experiment, participants were asked how much they wanted the promised reward for completing the task. Those who came up with a backup plan showed less interest in the reward than their peers, indicating that having a backup plan reduced the participants’ motivation to succeed.

Having a backup plan can help alleviate any concerns that students may have about falling short of their goals, but this comfort can cost students some of their drive to avoid failure, the researchers found. Without discouraging the formation of backup plans altogether, they advised students to distinguish between goals that can be achieved through effort and those that rely on innate skills or luck. Performance on the former type, they explained, is more likely to be negatively affected by knowledge of another plan.

“We think that when achieving a goal requires work, not luck, making a backup plan can hurt performance by reducing the desire for that goal,” study author Jihae Shin, PhD, told the Harvard Business Review.

Students should do everything in their power to achieve their primary goal before turning their thoughts to a backup plan, Dr. Shin suggested.

The study was published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.