Study: A Backup Plan Can Actually Make You Fail

Sure, go ahead and jump, but make sure your parachute works, is all I’m sayin’.

GOALS ARE ALWAYS A LITTLE out of reach from our current standpoints in life, which is why they’re our goals and not our current realities. We set them with the intention of reaching them, but along with a “Plan A,” a lot of people also like to set up a backup plan, just in case things don’t work out. It sounds like a safe, reasonable way to go after something a little lofty without ruining your life or draining your bank account if things end up falling short.

But is that fallback plan a little too reasonable? It turns out that having a backup plan might actually be hurting your chances of reaching your goals. A study done at the Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked into the logic psychology behind this, and determined that having that backup can actually reduce your performance in reaching your original goal.

In essence, when you know there is something to fall back on, you don’t work as hard on your primary goal, and therefore end up more likely to fail and actually need to use the backup. At which point you might think “Phew, good thing I had a backup,” or you might feel like crap (and only more so when your parents say “I told you acting wouldn’t work out.”) Or whatever.

Of course, the testing process they used to determine this was a little more simplistic than a career choice. The researchers gave their participants a task to unscramble some sentences, and then mentioned that their prize would either be a free snack or the opportunity to leave early.

Then they asked some of the groups to brainstorm about other ways they could access snacks on the campus, or some time else in the day they could create some free time for themselves, in case they didn’t get dismissed from the study early. The people who were asked to think about other options, and probably realized that a free snack wasn’t that cool after all, ended up performing worse on the unscrambling task than the other group did. They experienced a “diminished desire for goal success.”

You might be thinking “Not me, never!” but it makes a lot of sense. This is also why spoiling children doesn’t necessarily help them and can even hurt them — they don’t feel the heat because they know they have a backup.

The researchers concluded with the note that backup plans shouldn’t be avoided completely, but that they should just wait to be concocted until they’re actually needed.