On the Use and Usefulness of Backup Plans

Christopher M. Napolitano, Alexandra M. Freund

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In this article, we introduce the concept of backup plans as a motivational construct, defined as alternative means to an end that are intentionally developed but are not initially (or ever) used. We posit that backup plans change the way that a person pursues a goal, as well as the likelihood of achieving it, even if the backup plans are never used. In some cases, backup plans are a safety net supporting goal pursuit; however, in other cases, they constitute an unnecessary expense that can undermine motivation to persist with a first-choice plan. We propose that variations in the use and usefulness of backup plans are based on a person’s estimation and regulation of complexity value, or the additional costs and benefits that having a backup plan introduces compared with pursuing the same goal with only a single means. Although variations in the estimation and regulation of complexity value are idiosyncratic products of individual, contextual, and goal-related factors, we provide the prototypical example of age-related differences to illustrate our key points. In sum, our conceptualization of backup plans represents a new synthesis of motivation, multiple-goal, and life-span developmental research that addresses a key lacuna in the self-regulation literature.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)56-73
Number of pages18
JournalPerspectives on Psychological Science
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • backup plans
  • complexity value
  • goals
  • life-span development
  • motivation
  • self-regulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


Dive into the research topics of 'On the Use and Usefulness of Backup Plans'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this