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How backup plans can harm goal pursuit: The unexpected downside of being prepared for failure

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Abstract

When pursuing a goal, making a backup plan has many benefits, including reducing the psychological discomfort associated with uncertainty. However, we suggest that making a backup plan can also have negative effects. Specifically, we propose that the mere act of thinking through a backup plan can reduce performance on your primary goal by decreasing your desire for goal achievement. In three experimental studies, we find that individuals randomly assigned to think through a backup plan subsequently performed worse on their primary goal (Studies 1–3). We further show that this effect is mediated by study participants’ decreased desire to attain their primary goal (Study 3). This research provides a fresh perspective on plan-making, highlighting an important yet previously unexplored negative consequence of formulating plans.

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... In the broader context of the recent literature on second chances and backup plans, that we referred to at the start of the introduction, a resit exam would seem to provide a particularly simple and clear example of a backup plan or, more precisely, a contingent backup plan, defined by Napolitano and Freund (2016) as a backup plan that links future actions to specific contingency conditions associated with failure of first-choice plans. Whereas such backup plans typically are intentionally developed and then held in reserve, which may introduce practical advance costs and detract resources from developing and using the first-choice plan (Napolitano & Freund, 2016; for exceptions, see Shin & Milkman, 2016), resit exams require no such advance investments from students. This greatly simplifies the development of formal models to compare different strategies in terms of associated expected utilities, as we did in the current paper. ...
... This greatly simplifies the development of formal models to compare different strategies in terms of associated expected utilities, as we did in the current paper. Interestingly, very similar to the resit effect reported here, recent research suggests that backup plans may lead to a reduced probability of achieving one's goal by the first-choice plan (Napolitano & Freund, 2017;Shin & Milkman, 2016). As for the resit effect (e.g., Grabe, 1994), such effects of backup plans have been ascribed, at least in part, to negative effects on people's motivation and effort to pursue the goal through Plan A (Napolitano & Freund, 2016, 2017Shin & Milkman, 2016). ...
... Interestingly, very similar to the resit effect reported here, recent research suggests that backup plans may lead to a reduced probability of achieving one's goal by the first-choice plan (Napolitano & Freund, 2017;Shin & Milkman, 2016). As for the resit effect (e.g., Grabe, 1994), such effects of backup plans have been ascribed, at least in part, to negative effects on people's motivation and effort to pursue the goal through Plan A (Napolitano & Freund, 2016, 2017Shin & Milkman, 2016). As suggested by Shin and Milkman (2016), such effects may be mediated by a decreased desire to attain the primary goal. ...
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In accordance with a rational model of study-time investment, we previously found that the prospect of a resit exam leads to lower investments of fictional study-time for a first exam opportunity in an investment game utilizing simulated exams. In the current study, we investigated whether the depreciation of one’s first-exam investment reduces the resit effect. Specifically, we investigated study-time investments for a simulated multiple-choice exam in which 0, 50, or 100% of the initial study-time investment was lost before the resit exam. In accordance with our predictions, we found that the magnitude of the resit effect decreased as investment depreciation increased. This finding suggests that the negative effect of resit exams on study-time investment may be countered by creating conditions under which investment depreciation (i.e. forgetting) is expected to occur, for instance, by increasing the temporal interval between the first attempt and resit exam.
... In addition, people who wrote out their short-term goals, shared their commitment to complete the goals with others, and communicated progress with others were approximately 33% more successful than those who did not document their goals, share intent, and communicate progress with others (Matthews, 2012). Finally, a single focus on the goal without having a specific backup plan appears to be predictive of goal achievement given a longer time frame to accomplish desired results (Shin & Milkman, 2016). This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers. ...
... Although making a backup plan may provide practical and emotional benefits in the face of uncertainty, the value may come at a higher cost than previously understood. Results from three studies suggest that the act of reflecting on a backup plan has harmful effects on goal accomplishment (Shin & Milkman, 2016). This research suggests that reflecting on or generating backup plans may actually reduce the probability of successful goal attainment by dampening the initial goal desire (note that goal success that is based on pure luck or innate skill will not be affected). ...
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Most successful coaching engagements encourage clients to start, increase, decrease, modify, or stop behaviors that contribute to their effectiveness and performance on the job (Fogg, n.d.). Successfully sustaining new or altered behaviors over time until they become a habit is even more difficult (Nowack, 2009). Goal intentions (e.g., “I want to be a more participative and involvement-oriented leader”) have been found in a recent meta-analysis to be a weak predictor of acquiring new habits and account for approximately 28% of the variance in successful behavior-change efforts (Gollwitzer & Sheeran, 2006). Translating insight in coaching engagements to deliberate, varied, and ongoing practice has been shown to be associated with long-term successful behavior change (Nowack & Mashihi, 2012). This paper reviews current issues and best practices in goal intentions, goal striving, and goal flourishing to maximize coaching success with clients.
... In addition, people who wrote out their short-term goals, shared their commitment to complete the goals with others, and communicated progress with others were approximately 33% more successful than those who did not document their goals, share intent, and communicate progress with others (Matthews, 2012). Finally, a single focus on the goal without having a specific backup plan appears to be predictive of goal achievement given a longer time frame to accomplish desired results (Shin & Milkman, 2016). This document is copyrighted by the American Psychological Association or one of its allied publishers. ...
... Although making a backup plan may provide practical and emotional benefits in the face of uncertainty, the value may come at a higher cost than previously understood. Results from three studies suggest that the act of reflecting on a backup plan has harmful effects on goal accomplishment (Shin & Milkman, 2016). This research suggests that reflecting on or generating backup plans may actually reduce the probability of successful goal attainment by dampening the initial goal desire (note that goal success that is based on pure luck or innate skill will not be affected). ...
... Planning exists across organizations, entities, contexts, and time. Whereas one can see the inherent appeal of planning in organizations, research has found variability in its effects at the individual, team, and organizational level (Kudla 1980;Lanaj et al. 2013;Shin and Milkman 2016). Mintzberg (1994) famously identified the fallacy of planners being detached from the execution of their plans, which can lead to plans that are unrealistic and counterproductive. ...
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We use meta-analytic structural equation modeling (MASEM) to examine how organizational planning leads to managerial performance. Specifically, we test a theoretically-driven model of how participative budgeting and strategic performance measurement systems can positively impact managerial job performance through role clarity. Our analyses of 60 studies (containing 99 effect sizes) from multidisciplinary literature indicate role clarity mediates the relationship between planning implementation processes and managerial job performance. Additionally, and contrary to previous research, path analysis suggests job-relevant information mediates the relationship between role clarity and managerial job performance. We explain how participation in planning may prompt managers who are clear about their roles to seek additional information in order to perform well. Finally, we identify a need in future research for a greater diversity of the operationalizations of the constructs, levels of analysis, and data collection methods.
... In one study, negotiators who had two alternatives (e.g., $80 and $90) made less ambitious first offers than negotiators who had only one of the two alternatives (e.g., $80 or $90), because multiple alternatives anchored negotiators more strongly than a single one (Schaerer, Loschelder, & Swaab, 2016). Having fallback options can also negatively affect people's motivation and persistence in striving for their ideal targets (Shin & Milkman, 2016). To the extent that negotiators are willing to accept their fallback option, having a "just good enough" alternative can cause a negotiator to leave value on the table. ...
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This review synthesizes the impact of power on individual and joint negotiation performance. Although power generally has positive effects on negotiators’ individual performance (value claiming), recent work suggests that more power is not always beneficial. Taking a dyadic perspective, we also find mixed evidence for how power affects joint performance (value creation); some studies show that equal-power dyads create more value than unequal-power dyads, but others find the opposite. We identify the source of power, power distribution, and competitiveness as critical moderators of this relationship. Finally, we suggest that future research should move beyond studying alternatives in dyadic deal-making, identify strategies to overcome a lack of power, increase empirical realism, and take a more dynamic view of power in negotiations.
... While prior research has documented many negative effects of setting too flexible goals and plans (Ainslie, 2001;Cheema & Soman, 2006;Shin & Milkman, 2016), this research contributes to some of the recent research demonstrating the possible benefits of framing goals with a sense of flexibility. For example, high-low goals (e.g., score 2 to 4 points) have been found to lead people to be more likely to pursue their goal again (Scott & Nowlis, 2013) and nonspecific goals have been found, in some situations, to lead people to persist and perform better than those with specific goals (Ulkumen & Cheema, 2011;Wallace & Etkin, 2017). ...
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Along the path of struggling to reach their personal and organizational long-term goals, the experience of an initial subgoal failure can lead individuals to feel less committed to their overall goal and even to give up entirely on reaching it. In one field study and four lab studies, we examine the ability of a cost-free nudge to decrease the detrimental impact of subgoal failure on goal attainment. More specifically, we demonstrate that framing goals with emergency reserves, a type of slack, can motivate individuals to persist after subgoal failures, leading to better performance on long-term goals, compared to objectively equivalent goals without slack. After failing to reach a subgoal, we found that individuals with goals framed with emergency reserves felt a greater sense of perceived progress, causing them to feel more committed to their goal, and thus increasing their likelihood of persisting at their goals.
... They perform worse with goals that have multiple means of achieving them, once they are past the initial stages of goal pursuit (Huang and Zhang 2013), and consumers with high-low goals (e.g., a goal to score between two and four points) are more likely to pursue their goal again but are not more likely to perform better than those with single goals (e.g., a goal to score two points or a goal to score four points) (Scott and Nowlis 2013). Furthermore, consumers with goals with backup plans for the superordinate goal perform worse on their primary goal than those without backup plans (Shin and Milkman 2016). Finally, goal specificity has different effects on consumers depending on the construal level. ...
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Marketers of programs that are designed to help consumers reach goals face dual challenges of making the program attractive enough to encourage consumer signup while still motivating consumers to reach desirable goals and thus stay satisfied with the program. The authors offer a possible solution to this challenge: the emergency reserve, or slack with a cost. They demonstrate how an explicitly defined emergency reserve not only is preferred over other options for goal-related programs but can also lead to increased persistence. Study 1 demonstrates that consumers prefer programs with emergency reserves to programs that do not have them, and Study 2 further clarifies that consumers’ preference for an emergency reserve depends on the presence of a superordinate goal. Study 3 reveals that consumers prefer goals with emergency reserves because they perceive them to have both higher attainability and value than other goals. Study 4 demonstrates that reserves can lead to increased goal persistence in a ...
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Decision-makers with ideal candidates already in mind often extend search beyond optimal endpoints when searching for the best option among a sequential list of alternatives. Extended search is investigated here using three laboratory experiments; individuals in these tasks exhibit future-bias, delaying choice beyond normative benchmarks. Searchers' behavior is consistent with setting high thresholds based on a focal ideal outcome without full attention to its probability or the value of second-best alternatives; the behavior is partially debiased by manipulating which outcomes are in the searchers' focal set. Documenting future-bias in sequential search tasks offers new insights for understanding self-control and intertemporal choice by providing a situation in which thresholds may be set too high and myopic behavior does not prevail. Copyright © 2008 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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Building on recent research examining the influence of decision making on subsequent goal striving and decision enactment, we consider and elaborate on the mechanisms through which effortful decisions are made, maintained, and enacted. Our proposed framework builds on the Dholakia and Bagozzi (2002) model, distinguishes between two important types of intentions and desires, and shows that the motivation-mustering function of the decision process is mediated by goal and implementation desires. In addition to decision processes, the roles of goal feasibility, anticipated emotions, attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control are also elaborated on. Through a two-wave field study tracking real decisions and their pursuit by participants, we find empirical support for our model of effortful decision making and enactment. Copyright © 2003 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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Decision makers have a strong tendency to consider problems as unique. They isolate the current choice from future opportunities and neglect the statistics of the past in evaluating current plans. Overly cautious attitudes to risk result from a failure to appreciate the effects of statistical aggregation in mitigating relative risk. Overly optimistic forecasts result from the adoption of an inside view of the problem, which anchors predictions on plans and scenarios. The conflicting biases are documented in psychological research. Possible implications for decision making in organizations are examined.
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The article describes what has been found during 30 years of research by the author and others on the relationship between conscious performance goals and performance on work tasks. This approach is contrasted with previous approaches to motivation theory which stressed physiological, external or subconscious causes of action. The basic contents of goal setting theory are summarized in terms of 14 categories of findings. An applied example is provided.
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Subjective expected utility, prospect theory and most other formal models of decision making under uncertainty are probabilistic: they assume that in making choices people judge the likelihood of relevant uncertainties. Clearly, in many situations people do indeed judge likelihood. However, we present studies suggesting that there are also many situations in which people do not judge likelihood and instead base their decisions on intuitively generated, non-probabilistic rules or rationales. Thus, we argue that real-world situations are of two types. In situations eliciting a probabilistic mindset, people rely on judgments of likelihood. In situations eliciting a non-probabilistic mindset, they neglect judgments of likelihood. We suggest three factors that may influence the tendency towards either probabilistic or non-probabilistic mindsets. We also outline how extant probabilistic theories may be complemented by non-probabilistic models.
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Numerous studies of goal setting have found that specific and difficult or high-level goals lead to higher performance than vague (do best), easy goals, or no goals. However, often it has been asserted in the literature that specific goals as such lead to higher performance than vague goals even though goal theory makes no such claim. However, no previous study (with one partial exception) has actually separated the effects of goal level from those of goal specificity. It was predicted that when the two goal attributes were separated, goal level would affect level of performance whereas goal specificity would affect the variability of performance. Two experiments were conducted to test these hypotheses. The first used a reaction time task and the second an idea-generation task. The results of both studies supported the hypotheses. However, one of the two present studies and two previous studies found that high goal levels can also affect performance variance.
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We argue that goals serve as reference points and alter outcomes in a manner consistent with the value function of Prospect Theory (Kahneman & Tversky, 1979; Tversky & Kahneman, 1992). We present new evidence that goals inherit the proper ties of the value function-not only a reference point, but also loss aversion and diminishing sensitivity. We also use the value function to explain previous empirical results in the goal literature on affect, effort, persistence, and performance. (C) 1999 Academic Press.
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This study compared a motivational intervention based on protection motivation theory (PMT, Rogers, 1975, 1983) with the same motivational intervention augmented by a volitional intervention based on implementation intentions (Gollwitzer, 1993). The study had a longitudinal design, involving three waves of data collection over a 2-week period, incorporating an experimental manipulation of PMT variables at Time 1 and a volitional, implementation intention intervention at Time 2. Participants (N=248) were randomly allocated to a control group or one of two intervention groups. Cognitions and exercise behaviour were measured at three time-points over a 2-week period. The motivational intervention significantly increased threat and coping appraisal and intentions to engage in exercise but did not bring about a significant increase in subsequent exercise behaviour. In contrast, the combined protection motivation theory/implementation intention intervention had a dramatic effect on subsequent exercise behaviour. This volitional intervention did not influence behavioural intention or any other motivational variables. It is concluded that supplementing PMT with implementation intentions strengthens the ability of the model to explain behaviour. This has implications for health education programmes, which should aim to increase both participants' motivation and their volition.
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The optimal moment to address the question of how to improve human decision making has arrived. Thanks to 50 years of research by judgment and decision-making scholars, psychologists have developed a detailed picture of the ways in which human judgment is bounded. This article argues that the time has come to focus attention on the search for strategies that will improve bounded judgment because decision-making errors are costly and are growing more costly, decision makers are receptive, and academic insights are sure to follow from research on improvement. In addition to calling for research on improvement strategies, this article organizes the existing literature pertaining to improvement strategies and highlights promising directions for future research. © 2009 Association for Psychological Science.