Do Backups interfere with the main goal?

Want to reach a goal? Try flying without a net.

Always having a backup plan is good, right? Maybe not. Studies have been conducted at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s school of business to determine what effect a backup plan has on goal achievement. Researchers Jihae Shin and Katherine L. Milkman performed an experiment by giving two groups of participants sentence unscrambling tasks. Some participants were told that if they did well they would be given free food and an early dismissal. Other participants were instructed to come up with other ways to get free food because they didn’t do well enough.

During the experiment, those who made backup plans did not do as well as the group where success was the only option. A second experiment revealed that the Plan B students did poorly because they didn’t want to accomplish the goal as badly. Researchers believe that this has something to do with reducing the amount of risk involved in failure. The researchers don’t claim that having backup plans is bad, but indicate it does have costs. They suggest that more studies need to be done regarding the effect Plan B has on motivation.

Researchers at the University of Zurich suggest that having a well-developed Plan B can change the way we pursue Plan A. In some cases, having a Plan B can increase a person’s confidence, helping reduce stress in goal achievement. However, the act of creating a detailed Plan B can actually distract from pursuing Plan A, so Plan B becomes the most likely path, according to the scientists.

While these theories go against everything our parents ever taught us, they do make sense. If you are all-in on a plan, you are 100% focused on that plan because you have no alternative. However, scientists may be being a bit harsh. You usually make a detailed Plan B when Plan A has a high likelihood of failure. Very few people get through the college application process without applying to a safety school. It would be too stressful otherwise. This doesn’t mean you aren’t trying hard to get into your favorite school. It just means, in the end, you recognize that your stretch school is just that, a stretch – a risk.
My grandfather used to say that there are ten ways to accomplish any goal. Only two are superior, only two are horrible, and the rest get the job done. I’m not ready to give up on Plan B. Sometimes you just need to get the job done.

University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Backup plans may keep you from achieving your goal, research shows.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 11 August 2016. .

University of Zurich. “Making backup plans can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 December 2015. .

3 thoughts on “Do Backups interfere with the main goal?

  1. Samantha Liebensohn

    This blog post was extremely interesting because it can apply to pretty much anyone. Having a back up plan has always been part of my planning process. I never knew that having one can impair my ability to achieve success. This was a shocking realization to me because this factor never crossed my mind. Here is an article also talking about the negative side effects of having a back up plan:

  2. Dhaam Sakuntabhai

    This is very creative to write about this topic. I agree with how higher risk leads to higher return or higher failure.I know one of my friend who had no plan B for college and applied only for Columbia. As she was a high achiever person, she did got in but this is really a rare case. I do still think that for most people, having plan B for college is crucial. In addiction, your statement of “Plan B becomes the most likely path” made me think about the self-fulfilling prophecy theory because our mindset is already believing in that Plan B to be true so it becomes true. Here is an article that talks about this theory;

  3. Hannah Katherine Morrissey

    This was a very interesting read. It made me think largely of the college process. My guidance counselors in high school had us compromise a list of “reach schools” and “safety schools”. I remember always being bothered by the early decision process because although it seemed as if it was an opportunity for motivated kids to get into their top choice schools right away, it actually gave unfair advantages to kids who went to certain privatized schools or to kids that had an economic advantage. I have attached an article below analyzing the issue of the college process regarding first choices and early decision below.

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