Why having a Plan B can sometimes backfire

Amanda Phingbodhipakkiya

Research has found that having a backup plan might actually sabotage your efforts toward Plan A. Before you set up your safety net, read these lessons from women scientists.

Having a fallback plan is generally considered a good thing. When it comes to applying for colleges, jobs or mortgages, we’ve probably all heard the advice, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” or “Make sure you have a Plan B just in case Plan A doesn’t work out.” And there is some scientific support for this approach. Cognitive psychologists at NYU and the University of Chicago have confirmed that having a backup can alleviate some of the psychological discomfort associated with uncertainty and help us feel better about the future. But by and large, having a backup plan comes with a cost — as shown in these stories from the history of science, matched with the latest research on how our minds work.

A backup plan can make you less excited about your main plan. Some researchers have recently found that having a fallback, or even thinking through one, might actually make you less motivated to achieve your primary goal and thus end up impeding your performance. “Considering a backup plan could have the consequence of identifying another goal as valuable, which can lead us to re-evaluate our primary goal and maybe decrease its value,” says neuroscientist Benedicte Babayan, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University. “And the natural consequence of a decreased value would be a decreased willingness to pursue the initial goal.”

It could also water down your motivation. While fear of failure can be a paralyzing force, sometimes it can provide the push we need. Another study has found that the more negative emotions you anticipate feeling if you fail to reach your goal, the more driven you might be to achieve it. By concocting a backup plan, you could be unintentionally removing a powerful incentive.

I’ll admit: going all-in on a big, scary goal has served me well. In April 2016, I took a sabbatical from my full-time job as an art director at an advertising agency to pursue a dream project: an immersive exhibit featuring the work of five designer-neuroscientist collaborations. I had no funding, no teams and no exhibition space. But by the end of July, I’d run a successful Kickstarter campaign to finance it, put on The Leading Strand: Neurotransmission at a Manhattan gallery and delivered a TED talk (The storytelling of science) about my experience.

The lives of women scientists can provide inspiration for sticking to your Plan A. YouYou Tu — whom I showcased in Beyond Curie, my illustration project that celebrates women in STEM — was a researcher in traditional Chinese medicine who spent years looking for a treatment for malaria, a disease that was afflicting and killing people in the southern part of China. A pharmacologist by training, she never received a PhD or MD. Tu and her team at the Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine researched and experimented with various cures. One day, she came across a 1,600-year-old text that mentioned the wormwood plant as a remedy. After much trial and error, she and her colleagues managed to identify and isolate the malaria parasite-inhibiting compound artemisinin from the plant. She was the first human subject to try it — as team leader, she believed she should shoulder the responsibility and risk — and it proved safe for her and went on to help save millions of lives. For her work, she shared a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2015, becoming the first Chinese woman ever to be named a Nobel laureate.

Another lesson in Plan A thinking: Stay focused on your goal, so you know how best to reach it. Chien-Shiung Wu graduated at the top of her class at National Central University in China in 1934. She had a passion for physics, but since there were no graduate programs in the subject in her country, she made the bold decision to leave and get a doctorate in America. She was accepted at the University of Michigan. After enduring the months-long steamboat voyage across the Pacific and disembarking in San Francisco, she had time before her classes began, so she stopped by the University of California, Berkeley’s physics department. She was so excited by the work she saw there that she abandoned her plans at U of M and squeezed her way into Cal’s PhD program. She went on to play a pivotal role in the separation of uranium isotopes and sent shockwaves through the field when she disproved a long-held principle called conservation of parity.

Before you set out to pursue your goal, remember this: being risky doesn’t mean being reckless. The neuromodulators that affect motivation — dopamine, cortisol and adrenaline — “are known to have an ‘inverted U’ activity pattern,” says neuroscientist Ioana Carcea, a postdoctoral researcher at New York University. “Moderately high levels of these neuromodulators have an effect on neuronal activity and behavior that’s different from the effects they have at both very low and very high levels.” In other words, these neuromodulators — which work on the prefrontal cortex, an area that is important for action planning and goal-directed behavior — appear to be of optimal benefit when they’re at moderate levels but not at very low or very high levels. So if pursuing a Plan A is putting your life — or your life savings — in danger, having a safety net might be a good thing.

Anticipate adjustments to your plan. Expect your path to evolve as you take action — and respect that there’s a difference between abandoning your Plan A and navigating around setbacks and challenges to it. In 1938, Italian neurobiologist Rita Levi-Montalcini had to adjust to an enormous setback when fascist dictator Benito Mussolini barred all Jewish people from academic and professional jobs. She could have abandoned her research, but instead she set up a makeshift laboratory in her bedroom and forged on. That’s where she made the discovery of nerve growth factor. She was able to return to university work after World War II, and won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1986.

So, the next time you find yourself worried about not having a backup plan, ask yourself this: is making a Plan B worth the risk to your Plan A?

The article was originally first published on Ted Ideas.