Backup plans may distract from long-term goals, researchers say

Backup plans may get in the way of attaining a primary goal, but despite the latest research, backup parachutes remain a smart idea. Photo by Justin Connaher/U.S. Air Force/UPI

MADISON, Wis., Aug. 11 (UPI) — Given the chaotic nature of the world and the limits of human control, making backup plans seems sensible, but new research suggests the simple act of thinking through a fallback plan diminishes the chance of achieving personal and organizational goals.

The brain is a powerful thing.

In a series of experiments, researchers found participants who made backup plans failed to work as hard as their peers and were less likely to attain their goal.

The study began as a hunch and anxiety of Jihae Shin, assistant professor of management and human resources at the Wisconsin School of Business.

“I was talking with Katy about how sometimes I was hesitant to make a backup plan, because somehow I thought it might hurt my chances of success in my primary goal,” Shin said in a news release. “Katy thought it was an interesting idea and we decided to test it.”

Katy is research partner Katherine L. Milkman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Shin and Milkman recruited students to participate in a sentence-unscrambling task. Participants were told high performers would be given a snack or the chance to leave the study early. Half the participants were instructed to form a plan for gaining access to food later in the day, in case their poor performance kept them snack-less and occupied for the rest of the day.

When it came time to execute on the task, backup planners performed worse than those less prepared for failure.

Researchers say their findings — detailed in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes — don’t exactly undermine backup planning.

Backup plans have important benefits, especially when a task or goal requires innate skill or luck, or some combination of the two. However, when the attainment of a task or goal is relatively simple and largely based on effort, backup plans may serve only to hinder performance.

“You might want to wait until you have done everything you can to achieve your primary goal first,” Shin said.


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