What Are the Hidden Pitfalls of Making Backup Plans?

How do backup plans affect our ability to achieve goals? Sometimes, we’re just not sure whether we can achieve our goals, especially when it comes to important domains like getting a job, pitching a product to a potential client, or securing a loan to start a business.

In these uncertain times, it can be comforting (and practical) to come up with a backup plan in case things don’t work out. As backup plans to the given examples, one can apply for another job, pitch to another client, or go back to an old job instead of starting the business.


Backup plans are meant to be carried out when the original goal is not attained. These plans are characterized by two parts: They are paths toward new and different outcomes, and they fulfill the same broader goals of the original plans. For example, going back to an old job is distinct from starting your own business, and it fulfills the broader goal of having employment. Although they are often less desirable than their original counterparts (e.g., working for someone versus being your own boss), backup plans can be a source of comfort, as they reach the same original goal (e.g., working and getting paid). But is coming up with backup plans always a good thing to do?


Recent research (Shin & Milkman, 2016) has demonstrated the dark side of making backup plans. In a series of three experimental studies, participants unscrambled sentences for a reward (e.g., a free snack) under different conditions. In the “backup plan” condition, participants were told to think of alternative ways to get the reward in case they didn’t get it from the study (e.g., finding other free food on campus). Participants in the control condition proceeded to the task without these instructions. Across the three studies, the authors consistently found that participants in the backup plan condition unscrambled significantly fewer sentences than those in the control condition. Additional analyses showed that participants in the backup plan condition rated the original goal (reward of a free snack) as less desirable than those in the control condition, which led them to do worse on the sentence unscrambling task. Other explanations like fatigue and lower appeal of the broader goal (free food) were also ruled out in. In summary, merely thinking about a backup plan can reduce performance on your original goal by lowering your desire to achieve that goal.


With this in mind, decision-makers can better weigh the costs of making backup plans against its benefits. Costs include lower desire to complete goals and lower performance on the original goal. Benefits include psychological insurance against the uncertainty of reaching a goal. The authors speculate that some people may behave differently when this trade-off is made clear, while others may find ways to avoid or minimize the drawbacks of making a backup plan.


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.