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The Backup Plan Paradox

Having a Plan B for college or your career is prudent but may come with a cost.

Key points

  • Backup plans can undermine goal pursuit by devaluing the rewards associated with achieving a goal, thus reducing motivation.
  • Backup plans draw tangible and psychological resources away from your primary goal in both the planning and execution stages.
  • Students can focus on superordinate and concurrent goals as ways to have backup plans while limiting their impact on motivation and performance.

“Accept reality and have a backup plan, but always follow your dreams no matter what.” —Miley Cyrus

“If you have a backup plan, then you’ve already admitted defeat.” —Henry Cavill

Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images
Source: Nick Youngson/Alpha Stock Images

Miley and Henry express two opposing views on backup plans. While Miley works diligently toward her goals, she prefers the safety net of a Plan B. Not only will a backup plan be prudent should things go awry, but it could facilitate her goals by alleviating anxiety. Henry, however, believes that a backup plan is self-sabotage, imbuing doubt in the value of his goal and/or his ability to complete it. Henry, therefore, remains singularly focused on his goal until it’s finished or unquestionably unachievable.

So… are you a Miley or a Henry?

Perhaps more important is whether you encourage students to be a Miley or a Henry when choosing a program, major, or career path. Should you help students develop a backup plan in case their initial goals don’t work out or advise them to keep their eyes on the prize? Two interesting papers shed light on this conundrum.

Backup plans curb motivation.

In a series of studies, people were paid $10 to unscramble sentences, with top performers earning a $1 bonus. Half of the participants were reminded that they might not earn the bonus and were instructed to imagine ways they could save $1 over the next 24 hours. In other words, they were the Mileys, creating a backup plan for how to increase their spending power by $1 should they fail at their goal. The other participants were the Henrys, attempting to earn the bonus without any other plan in mind.

Mileys performed significantly worse than Henrys at unscrambling sentences. This gap was largely explained by the fact that Mileys reported less desire to earn $1 than did Henrys. Backup plans, therefore, can devalue the rewards that come from achieving a goal and, thus, demotivate you to complete that goal. Henry seems to be correct: Backup plans may portend defeat.

Raph_PH/ryanmorrisonjsy/Wikimedia Commons
Are you a Miley or a Henry?
Source: Raph_PH/ryanmorrisonjsy/Wikimedia Commons

Backup plans use resources.

A series of studies on the backup plan paradox reveals that backup plans undermine our goals by gobbling up finite resources. At the onset of her goal, Miley uses time and cognitive energy to formulate a backup plan instead of spending those resources on her primary objective. In some cases, she might pour tangible resources, like money, into fortifying Plan B at the expense of Plan A. Henry avoids these costs.

While actively pursuing her goal, Miley spends more cognitive energy suppressing her backup plan, costs also avoided by Henry. Goal shielding refers to the automatic, subconscious process by which our brains inhibit intrusive thoughts so that we can focus on goal pursuit. Miley must meanwhile spend even more cognitive energy to monitor progress toward her goal in order to judge whether the backup plan might be better.

By this point, Miley may become biased toward her backup plan due to the sunk cost fallacy. Although this phenomenon normally refers to our tendency to stick to plans longer than we should because we’ve invested heavily in them (i.e., “throwing good money after bad”), the more resources Miley has committed to her backup plan, the more likely she is to change course. So, as Henry suspects, creating a backup plan often begets using the backup plan.

Finally, if Miley does decide that her backup plan is her best bet, switching gears comes with more costs. She may need to cope with negative affect (“I screwed up!”), readjust her expectations of what success looks like, or amend some part of her self-concept to align with the new goal. And if the original goal lingers, effectively becoming her backup plan, the earlier costs of goal shielding and monitoring remain. All of this is why across multiple laboratory tasks (i.e., fluid intelligence test, simulated negotiation, ball tossing) with many different samples, researchers found no situation in which switching to the backup plan didn’t harm performance.

Backup plans and college advising

So it seems that Henry is correct: Backup plans are risky business. They decrease desire and commitment to the initial goal, create an additional cognitive burden, and ultimately hinder performance. But I don’t want to argue that students should never have a backup plan because a) that would be reckless, and b) we can’t magically turn a Miley into a Henry. Instead, we must acknowledge the price of a backup plan and work to ameliorate that cost when we advise our students. Research in this area recommends two key strategies:

  1. Reframe students’ academic choices around superordinate goals. Nobody wants to be a nurse, teacher, or engineer in a vacuum. Students learn in order to help other people, expand knowledge, build things, or satisfy other self-relevant needs while also earning a living wage. Discussing important decisions as in service of students’ superordinate goals may help them stay focused on what really matters, even if they need to switch their major, program, or career path in order to achieve it.
  2. Superordinate goals can also afford the opportunity to pursue concurrent goals. For example, if you want to lose weight, you can consume fewer calories and exercise more; it’s not an either-or situation and neither strategy must be relegated to “backup plan.” But students can only take so many classes at once and often cannot be in two programs simultaneously. To the extent possible, colleges should facilitate and nudge students toward classes, internships, and other experiences that help them progress toward both Plans A and B. This prevents students from expending finite resources solely on their backup plan and could make it easier for them to transition onto a new path should that become necessary.

With some careful planning and reframing, the Mileys of the world can achieve their goals while holding onto the comfort of a backup plan, and the Henrys can excel even with a safety net to catch them should they fall.

References

Napolitano, C. M., & Freund, A. M. (2017). First evidence for “the backup plan paradox.” Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 146(8), 1189-1203.

Shah, J. Y., Friedman, R., & Kruglanski, A. W. (2002). Forgetting all else: On the antecedents and consequences of goal shielding. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(6), 1261-1280.

Shin, J., & Milkman, K. L. (2016). How backup plans can harm goal pursuit: The unexpected downside of being prepared for failure. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 135, 1-9.

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