The Case Against Having a Backup Plan

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Photo: Mike Kemp

There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to backup plans. The first is that they preclude success, that imaging an alternate future in which you fail is akin to just giving up prematurely. See: people who hate prenups, inspirational stories about teens pursuing their dreams, this old Inc. interview with Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes (who, to be fair, probably wishes she had a backup plan right about now), all those personal essays about quitting your job to travel.

The second is the opposite: that they’re a necessary ingredient for success, that a truly driven person will always have a few ideas waiting on the back burner in case things go up in flames. See: people who get prenups (and first date prenups), interviews with CEOs dispensing cautious business advice, rebuttal essays about why quitting your job to travel is actually kind of a dumb idea.

As a person who’s generally suspicious of spontaneity (and who loves to segment a day into to-do lists), it pains me to say it, but the no-planners may have a point. In Scientific American this week, two business professors came down cautiously on the side of camp number one. In some cases, they argued, having a backup plan can be counterproductive.

The researchers, the University of Wisconsin’s Jihae Shin and the University of Pennsylvania’s Katherine Milkman, broke down the main finding of a study they’d recently published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes: Just thinking about a Plan B can diminish the amount of effort you’ll put into your Plan A, making it less likely that you’ll actually achieve whatever you set out to do.

In one experiment, they asked strangers at a train station to write a description of a goal, how hard they were working to achieve it, and whether they had a backup plan if their goal didn’t pan out; the people who answered “yes” to the last question, they discovered, also weren’t hustling as much to execute their original plan. Other experiments, in which undergrads completed puzzles in exchange for a reward, yielded a similar pattern.

The findings come with a caveat, they noted: The study only looked at goals that depended solely on personal effort, not on any outside circumstances — like, say, a tight bank account or family obligations, two things that might make it hard to quit your day job and travel the world. Some plans can be willed into being just through sweat and determination; others take good timing, disposable income, and luck. For the ones in that second category, having a backup still couldn’t hurt.