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Back Up Plans May Prevent You From Achieving Your Goals

Summary: According to researchers, making backup plans can reduce goal performance and could hurt your chances of achieving your ultimate goal.

Source: University of Wisconsin-Madison.

When it comes to setting organizational and personal goals, making a backup plan has been seen as a sensible way to deal with uncertainty — to be prepared if things don’t go as expected.

However, new research from the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin–Madison challenges that conventional wisdom and finds that merely thinking through a backup plan can reduce goal performance and actually hurt the chances of successfully achieving your goal.

Jihae Shin, assistant professor of management and human resources at the school, together with Katherine L. Milkman of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted a series of experiments that showed making a backup plan can cause people not to work as hard and to be less successful at attaining their primary goal.

“I was talking with Katy about how sometimes I was hesitant to make a backup plan, because somehow I thought it might hurt my chances of success in my primary goal,” Shin says. “Katy thought it was an interesting idea and we decided to test it.”

Shin and Milkman set out to test the idea with a series of laboratory experiments. Participants were given a sentence-unscrambling task and told that if they showed high performance on the task they would be given a free snack or the chance to leave the study early.

Image shows arrows.

While there are important benefits of making a backup plan, such as reducing perceived uncertainty and making people feel more comfortable about the future, there may also be potential costs that have been less well known. NeuroscienceNews.com image is for illustrative purposes only.

Some groups were then instructed to come up with other ways they could get free food on campus or save time later in the day in case they didn’t do well enough to earn the snack or the early dismissal in their current study. Those in the groups making backup plans showed lower performance on the task, and a follow-up experiment revealed a key factor driving this effect was a diminished desire for goal success.

While there are important benefits of making a backup plan, such as reducing perceived uncertainty and making people feel more comfortable about the future, there may also be potential costs that have been less well known. The researchers suggest that understanding those costs can be important, especially in those cases where goals can be achieved through effort. In instances where they can be achieved by luck or innate skill, on the other hand, making a backup plan is not expected to reduce goal performance.

The researchers suggest that while they find potential costs to making a backup plan, it does not mean that people should go through life without ever having them. They say you could explore ways to mitigate these costs — such as being more strategic about when you make a backup plan.

“You might want to wait until you have done everything you can to achieve your primary goal first,” Shin says.

About this psychology research article

Source: Peter Kerwin – University of Wisconsin-Madison
Image Source: This NeuroscienceNews.com image is in the public domain. Credit: NIH/NIA.
Original Research: Abstract for “How backup plans can harm goal pursuit: The unexpected downside of being prepared for failure” by Jihae Shin and Katherine L. Milkman in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Published online May 4 2016 doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2016.04.003

Cite This NeuroscienceNews.com Article
University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Back Up Plans May Prevent You From Achieving Your Goals.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 16 August 2016.
<http://neurosciencenews.com/goals-planning-psychology-4860/>.
University of Wisconsin-Madison. (2016, August 16). Back Up Plans May Prevent You From Achieving Your Goals. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved August 16, 2016 from http://neurosciencenews.com/goals-planning-psychology-4860/
University of Wisconsin-Madison. “Back Up Plans May Prevent You From Achieving Your Goals.” http://neurosciencenews.com/goals-planning-psychology-4860/ (accessed August 16, 2016).

Abstract

How backup plans can harm goal pursuit: The unexpected downside of being prepared for failure

When pursuing a goal, making a backup plan has many benefits, including reducing the psychological discomfort associated with uncertainty. However, we suggest that making a backup plan can also have negative effects. Specifically, we propose that the mere act of thinking through a backup plan can reduce performance on your primary goal by decreasing your desire for goal achievement. In three experimental studies, we find that individuals randomly assigned to think through a backup plan subsequently performed worse on their primary goal (Studies 1–3). We further show that this effect is mediated by study participants’ decreased desire to attain their primary goal (Study 3). This research provides a fresh perspective on plan-making, highlighting an important yet previously unexplored negative consequence of formulating plans.

“How backup plans can harm goal pursuit: The unexpected downside of being prepared for failure” by Jihae Shin and Katherine L. Milkman in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. Published online May 4 2016 doi:10.1016/j.obhdp.2016.04.003

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