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Amy Green PhD
Amy Green PhD

It Might Be Time to Ditch the Backup Plan

New research suggests that backup plans may create a barrier to success

Aki Tolentino / / CCO 1.0
Source: Aki Tolentino / / CCO 1.0

It certainly seems like a sensible idea: always make a backup plan just in case Plan A doesn’t work out.

However, a current study has backed up what actor Henry Cavill (aka Superman) believes to be true:

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

Researchers Jihae Shin from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Katherine Milkman from the University of Pennsylvania recently published a study that suggested that simply thinking about a backup plan can reduce performance on your primary goal, and ultimately hurt your chances of success.

To test their theory, the researchers randomly assigned participants to control groups and backup plan groups. Participants were told that if they performed well on a sentence-unscrambling task, they would be given a free snack or the chance to leave the study early. However, participants in the backup plan conditions were also instructed that they could come up with other ways to get free food on campus or save time later in the day in case they failed on the task (in other words, they were asked to construct a backup plan).

Findings revealed that those in the backup plan groups performed significantly worse on the sentence task, and had a diminished desire to achieve their goal.

The study backs up a theoretical model developed by researchers Christopher Napolitano and Alexandra Freund from the University of Zurich, who claim that backup plans change the way people pursue their goals. Although people make backup plans to manage uncertainty, which makes sense given that uncertainly can feel uncomfortable, Napolitano and Freund asserted that, in some cases, “[backup plans] constitute an unnecessary expense that can undermine motivation to persist with a first-choice plan” (2016, p. 56).

However, they also claimed that more research is needed to test under which conditions backup planning increases the chances of goal achievement and under which conditions it presents a barrier.

For example, Shin and Milkman note that their study only looked at goals that can be achieved through effort. For goals that involve luck – like a desire to get rich playing the lottery – a backup plan may not be such a bad idea after all.

The take-home message? Pay attention to the role that backup plans are playing in your life. Are they holding you back from committing yourself fully to your goals? Or are they a realistic way to manage the potential outcomes of your life’s path?


Napolitano, C..M., Freund, A. M. (2016). On the use and usefulness of backup plans. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 11, 56-73.

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. DOI: 10.1016/j.obhdp.2016.04.003

About the Author
Amy Green PhD

Amy Green, M.A., is a doctoral student in Counselling Psychology at the University of Calgary.

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