Responsible people always have a backup plan, right? Maybe. But your Plan B may prevent you from succeeding with your Plan A. A new study reveals why.

Jihae Shin from Wisconsin School of Business at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Katherine L. Milkmanb from Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania performed the research. In a series of studies, they examined the effects a backup plan has on success. Their study is aptly titled How Backup Plans Can Harm Goal Pursuit.

To one group, they offered rewards if the participants did well on a test. The researchers told other groups if they didn't perform well on the test, they'd have to create a backup plan to find the same rewards. The backup plan group ended up doing worse on the tests. After the test, follow-up questions revealed the backup plan groups were not as motivated to do well.

Losing motivation before you've started

The research results can be synthesized like this: If you're already mentally preparing for the possibility of failure, you won't be as invested in making sure your Plan A succeeds. The researchers concluded the simple act of thinking through your backup plan can reduce your desire and performance to succeed with your initial goal.

This theory was reinforced in a recent episode of  Open for Business, an Ebay-sponsored podcast about how to build a successful business. In the episode How to Make it America, owner of New Green Nutrition Samuel Lu tells how his mother founded the business. She had no savings and no line of credit. She borrowed money from her family to open a business selling Chinese medicine and herbal supplements. "I don't think she ever really sat down to think about, 'what would happen if I fail, what should I do?'" Lu explains. "She didn't really have a backup plan. She just said, 'let's go, let's do this.'" The business wasn't necessarily destined to succeed. It had to.

"Starting a business on a lean budget can result in focused and disciplined decision making," Open for Business host John Heny says. "If every financial decision is make or break, your priorities become very clear, very quickly."

Plan B are emotional safety nets

Failure to achieve any goal causes some level of emotional pain. That pain is exactly what you're trying to avoid as you strive towards success. There's no greater motivator for success than the fear of failure.

But if you know you have a plan to fall back on, that failure will not be as painful. Shin and Milkman hypothesize that a Plan B effectively creates an emotional safety net. Being prepared for failure makes it not as scary. Being committed to success means you accept the journey it takes to get there -- no Plan Bs.

"So many times we want the dream but don't want what it takes to get there," writes Lisa Abeyta, a startup founder who bootstrapped for three years. "It isn't just about having a great idea for a business or being talented or smart enough to make that idea into reality. It's also about being scrappy enough to survive the valleys and determined enough to remove the barriers that inevitably arise."

Published on: Aug 22, 2016
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.