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The downside to being prepared for failure

The job market has not always been welcoming to aspiring academics. A study by the National Science Foundation in 2014 found that nearly 40 percent of the PhD recipients in the survey were jobless at graduation. Considering the scarcity of academic jobs, it would seem natural, even necessary, for PhD candidates to have a backup employment plan. Right?

New research suggests that having a Plan B is not necessarily a good idea. In the study “How backup plans can harm goal pursuit: The unexpected downside of being prepared for failure,” Jihae Shin and Katherine Milkman, researchers at the University of Wisconsin Madison and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, respectively, found that backup plans diminish the desire to achieve the primary goal in the first place.

Human nature drives us to make contingency plans. People don’t like failure and are inherently loss-averse. Backup plans have natural appeal, since an alternative option can ameliorate the negative impact of failing to achieve a primary goal and thus reduce the size of the impending loss.


“There is a rich history on the value of setting goals, and there is a lot of research looking towards that. I think that people kind of assumed that having a different option is important in case your plan doesn’t work,” says David Lepak, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Isenberg School of Management.

Shin and Milkman started to question the assumptions about backup plans in the spring of 2013. Shin, a doctoral student at the Wharton School, approached Milkman, a professor and member of her dissertation committee, to discuss how she could find a job. They decided that Shin should pursue only academic jobs, rejecting any other field. Then they noticed how their logic contradicted traditional planning theory.

Their study called on subjects to perform a sentence-unscrambling task with the promise of a reward. Participants who were advised to make a backup plan in case they missed out on the reward performed worse than those who were not.

“The primary value of this study is the notion that setting goals is motivating, but if you come up with an alternative way to achieve that goal, then the power of that first objective is lessened,” said Lepak.


This research only applies to endeavors requiring skill or effort. For instance, winning the lottery is an act that’s devoid of skill, so having a backup plan will not have negative consequences.

Shin and Milkman’s findings could assist managers in rethinking how to organize their teams. The research suggests that managers could have one person devise a backup plan while the rest of the team maintains focus on the primary goal. This divide-and-conquer approach could give employees the perks of a fallback option while not detracting from the chances of achieving the primary objective.

Marshall Sloane can be reached at