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Risk-Taking

The Danger of Making a Backup Plan

Knowing you have a safety net makes you less likely to make the leap.


Whatever your creative ambition is, you know it could fail. Tough, but true. Your book proposal might get rejected, your start-up might tank. Your client pitch might fall flat. That’s an uncomfortable prospect for anyone, and a sensible antidote is often to make a backup plan. You tell yourself that if the book proposal flops, then you’ll start applying for staff writer positions. Or if your start-up fails, then you’ll take that job at your friend’s company.

A backup plan is like an emotional safety net – it’s comforting and helps combat the fear of failure. And yet, ironically, the very act of devising this secondary plan could make it more likely that your primary goal will fail.

The very act of devising this secondary plan could make it more likely that your primary goal will fail.

Business scholars at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Pennsylvania advised recently that this adverse effect is most likely if your primary goal takes effort (which of course is true of most creative ambitions). The reason, as shown in their new paper in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, is that backup plans can sap our motivation. Fear of failure is actually a powerful driver toward success, and by ameliorating that anxiety, a backup plan makes it more likely you’ll enter cruise mode, rather than forge ahead with single-minded ambition.

To test their theory that backup plans sap motivation, the researchers conducted four experiments involving hundreds of people who were asked to decipher scrambled sentences in a given timeframe. The rewards for success varied across the experiments and included a free snack or extra payment.

In each case, some of the participants were asked to devise a backup plan. For example, if the reward for success at the task was a free snack, the participants in the backup condition were asked to think about other ways they could obtain free food on campus.

The consistent finding was that participants who devised backup plans unscrambled fewer sentences. The purely mental act of coming up with other ways of obtaining the task reward meant that their performance suffered. Questionnaires administered to participants afterwards showed this wasn’t because participants with a backup plan had been distracted, but because they felt less motivated.

One clarification – this new research is about backup plans that involve identifying a new goal if your primary goal fails (like applying for a staff position if your book proposal gets rejected). It isn’t about identifying multiple means to achieve the same primary goal – for example, doing research to find as many agents as possible to whom to submit your proposal. Lots of research suggests that finding multiple strategies towards the same goal increases commitment and motivation.

Based on their findings, the researchers Jihae Shin and Katherine Milkman advised that “although making a backup plan has well-known benefits [such as reducing anxiety about the future…], it also has costs that should be weighed carefully”.

These new results lack a certain amount of realism – performance on an online word game is not equivalent to launching a new company or penning a novel. Nonetheless, the experiments support a compelling intuition – that by dousing your fear, a backup plan can also extinguish your burning passion. Logic suggests this is most likely to be a problem when your goal depends on dogged determination, much less so for “punts” the success of which depends much more on luck – in this latter case, backup plans are a shrewd idea with no apparent downside.

To make a plan B, or not to make a plan B?

The findings suggest that one way to decide is to weigh up whether your bigger concern for a particular goal is excessive anxiety or flagging motivation. Say you’re terrified that your client pitch is going to bomb – and the reason is not through lack of preparation – then it makes sense to have a backup plan in place (for example, you could make parallel plans to approach different clients). On the other hand, if your problem is one of motivation – you’re struggling to switch off the football game and getting to work on your pitch – it might well be better not to give yourself the comfort of a backup plan. In this case, thinking through a backup risks undermining your energy still further, giving you the perfect excuse to keep watching the game.

There is also a third way – make a habit of devising backup plans but do so mindful of the potential harm to your drive and focus. If you can offset the motivational drag of the backup plan, then you have the best of both worlds.

Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s editor and creator of the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest blog, a columnist on personality for BBC Future, and author of The Rough Guide to Psychology and Great Myths of the Brain. He’s currently working on his next book, PersonologyOn Twitter @Psych_Writer.

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