Skip to main content

Could Back-Up Plans Backfire?

Experiments suggest that, under the right conditions, formulating a Plan B can get in the way of achieving your goals.

By Nathan Collins


Elizabeth Holmes. (Photo: JP Yim/Getty Images)

In retrospect, Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes’ remark to an audience of Stanford Business School students that “the minute you have a back-up plan, you’ve admitted you’re not going to succeed” seems a tad misguided, seeing as how she’s now banned from operating labs for two years. Yet there might be a kernel of truth to what Holmes said: According to new experiments, creating back-up plans can decrease the desire to follow through on our primary goals.

“While making a backup plan may provide psychological (and in some cases, practical) benefits in the face of uncertainty, we propose that this value may come at a higher than previously understood cost,” Jihae Shin and Katherine Milkman write in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. “We posit that the mere act of thinking through a backup plan — even when it takes no time or energy away from primary goal pursuit — may reduce performance on primary goals and thus lower the probability of goal attainment.”

To test that hypothesis, Shin and Milkman offered a snack reward to 160 undergraduates who were given 10 minutes to decipher a series of scrambled sentences. Before the experiment began, however, half the students were told to come up with a back-up plan: “In case you don’t get the ‘free snack’ from this study, think of different ways you can find free food on campus.” Remarkably, the back-up-plan group fared worse than others, deciphering an average of 4.2 sentences, compared to 4.5 sentences for the control group, an effect they replicated in two subsequent online trials.

Under the right conditions, it might be best to throw caution to the wind and forget about Plan B.

So why would a back-up plan keep people from reaching their goals? In a second experiment, the team conducted a similar sentence-deciphering experiment to the first one—this time with a dollar bill instead of a snack—with 134 new participants. (Each of those participants also answered two questions to indicate just how badly they wanted the dollar.) More than just replicating the results of the first experiment, Shin and Milkman’s second analysis suggested that the presence of a back-up plan reduced participants’ desire to earn an extra dollar, which in turn hurt their deciphering performance.

That’s not to say that back-up plans are necessarily a bad idea, Shin and Milkman argue. Indeed, in cases where the outcome doesn’t depend solely on the effort a person puts in, the benefits of a back-up plan “could be significant,” the researchers write. Formulating back-up plans may also provide some perspective and lead to better decisions. Still, under the right conditions, it might be best to throw caution to the wind and forget about Plan B.