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LIFE HONESTLY

Throw away your Plan B. And get what you really want

Back-up plans are bad for you, say scientists. And Viv Groskop concurs

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By Viv Groskop on

Good news, guys. Yes, finally, some good news. You don’t need a Plan B. Yes, that’s it. The good news. You can scrap your Plan B. OK, I know I’m scraping the barrel a bit here. But I couldn’t find any other good news, alright? So that will just have to do. And I don’t have a Plan B for finding any good news because I scrapped Plan B. The scientists told me to do it.

According to a new study in Scientific American, having a back-up plan in life can increase your likelihood of having to use it. So if you are serious about Plan A, you might as well do without the Plan B. Because it’s going to sabotage Plan A anyway. (Although I have an issue with this. If Plan A is going to get sabotaged, you really need a Plan B, right? So surely you should not scrap it? This thinking may explain why I am not a scientist.)

For a paper titled Organisational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes, researchers Jihae Shin and Katherine Milkman (cool name) approached people at train stations and questioned them about their goals and back-up plans. I’m not convinced by this methodology personally, by the way, as I’m not very trusting and there’s no way I would talk to some random about my life goals at a train station. Although I would have a long conversation with Katherine about where her surname comes from. But anyway. They somehow judged that the train passengers with fallback options were not working as hard towards their stated life goals.

I think we all need a kick up the arse at the moment to refocus on what we really care about

More promisingly, they then did lab experiments where students had to unscramble words into sentences for a snack reward. The students were told that if they failed they wouldn’t get the snack (mean!) and were encouraged to think about other options for finding a free snack, in case they under-performed. Surprise, surprise, those with a fallback snack plans didn’t perform as well in the task. The same findings repeated themselves with money.

Their final test asked why this is happening. “We found that people who thought through back-up plans before working towards the goal in our study wanted the proffered rewards less intensely than others.” So having a back-up plan is already proof that you don’t want the thing you’re going after so badly after all.

They term this mental strategy “psychological insurance.” “The insurance of having a back-up plan is very attractive. However, just like other insurances, it may come with a price.” This theory, they added, is only relevant to effort-based goals: if your goal requires a lot of effort, you don’t want to do anything to compromise your motivation. But if your goal requires no effort – say, winning the lottery (this, by the way, is a rubbish goal) – then it’s OK to have a back-up plan. D’oh. Seriously, I could have told them this already and saved them a lot of time loitering on station platforms.

So how is this good news, Viv? I hear you ask. Well, because I think we all need a kick up the arse at the moment to refocus on what we really care about. Ditch the back-up plans and go after the thing you really want with maximum ball-breaking chutzpah. Do we really need social science to remind us that life is not a rehearsal? Hey, whatever it takes.

@VivGroskop

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