‘When sticking to the plan makes us stuck’: Plan continuation bias and university/career plans

Have you ever stuck to a plan perhaps longer than you should have done despite a number of warning signs that it might not be the best route forwards? This question really touched a nerve with me after reading a really interesting article by Craig Pickering this week on plan continuation bias in sport (The downsides of sticking with the plan). 

Plan continuation bias can be defined as ‘the tendency of people to continue with an original course of action that is no longer viable’ which can often happen despite changing conditions and updated information about the situation (APA, 2020). Perhaps one of the most well-known applications of this concept can be seen when an airline pilot unexpectedly encounters bad weather (or changing conditions) when coming into land but rather than diverting to another runway or aborting the landing, decides to go ahead with the plan of landing at the originally scheduled destination. A previous study by NASA which reviewed airline accidents of 19 major US airlines between 1990 and 2000 found plan continuation bias to be a causative factor in up to 75% of the accidents recorded.

Plan continuation bias has also been referred to by pilots more informally as ‘get-there-itis’. Interestingly, the closer we are to our goal (or landing), the stronger the bias becomes. In hindsight we may be able to see that we should have changed our plan to take into account the changing conditions. This type of bias happens when our understanding of the situation shifts away from the reality of what is actually taking place (Dekker, 2002). This primarily happens because of two reasons:

  1. The early cues that we sustain which suggest that the plan will be safe are much more unambiguous and compelling – this plan tends to work the majority of the time.
  2. The later cues which suggest that the situation is changing are much more ambiguous and contradictory, and are difficult to process – is this really what I think it is?

This particular form of cognitive bias that we as humans are susceptible to is more complicated (particular when examining it in terms of aviation accidents) than has been described here, but the concept as a whole is an interesting one that could be explored in relation to many of the decisions and paths that we persist with, despite updated information or even ‘red flags’ suggesting to us that it might not be the best or most appropriate course of action. 

We as humans are always making plans based on all of the incoming information that we receive and influences that we are subject to. Take for example Year 12 and 13 (Grade 11 and 12) students and the process they undergo during their last two years of secondary education in terms of planning their path after school. For many students (particularly those in international schools) this often means which university they’re going to, what course they will be studying, and in what country. What a massive decision to make at 18, especially when some of these students regularly struggle to remember their laptop or books for class!

Some of these students enter the guidance counsellor’s office with a clear plan of what they want to do (even as early as Year 10) and this is normally shaped by a number of factors, which can include what their Mum or Dad does for a living, what job they think will pay them well, as well as broader cultural influences about which careers are well respected. During a time when students are grappling with finding out who they are and what they want to do, it’s interesting how students can feel tied to a plan of the career they are going to pursue and the university they are going to go to despite the changing conditions around them – perhaps their own knowledge of their strengths differing from the career or subjects they are pursuing, consistently struggling with a subject despite enormous amounts of effort and even tutoring to keep up, and even successes they experience at school highlighting where some of their true strengths lie. Despite these perhaps ‘ambiguous’ clues, students may choose to pursue careers that perhaps don’t really fit with who they are, and can often face quite painful realisations further down the line. 

What is also interesting and worth noting, is that if you throw in the rhetoric of grit and resilience (perhaps without exploring these terms beyond their face value), then it can be especially hard for any of us to deviate or change course without feeling like we’ve failed. 

When I read Pickering’s article I thought about my own decision to leave a lecturing career after only one year. I’d spent a lot of time studying at university and pursuing opportunities that would help me to get to the end goal of lecturing in higher education. As soon as I started my PhD, the ultimate plan was to get a job as a lecturer and work my way up to senior lecturer, reader and professor (ha!) one day. However, the year that I spent working as a lecturer took a huge toll on me, both mentally and physically. As a junior lecturer at 27, I was leading more modules than anyone in my department, I taught on more modules than anyone in my department, I taught probably nearer the higher end of lecturing hours per week, and also had more marking and moderating to complete than most of my colleagues. This happened despite my limited experience of lecturing and marking, and with very little support offered. During that year I lost about 10kg, regularly slept for around four hours a night, and worked every weekend in an attempt to keep up and so as not to appear as though I was struggling as a new lecturer. I even remember speaking to my Grandad about how miserable I was and I vividly remember him telling me ‘Sade, for the amount of hours that you’re working, you’re getting paid less than minimum wage. You might as well go and work in a supermarket… at least you get paid for the work you do and you leave it all behind when you go home. Life is too short to be all about work’.

Ultimately I was completely burned out by the end of the year and decided to leave. I had to deviate from the plan.

There have been other jobs since which I also chose to leave only after short periods of time for a number of reasons, predominantly because they weren’t the right environment or fit for me. This led to a crisis of self for me of sorts. I remember reading Angela Duckworth’s ‘Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance’ and thinking to myself ‘well this doesn’t apply to me, apparently I love to quit things’. For me the most painful thing was feeling like I had to explain to people why I didn’t persist with the jobs I had at the time. I clearly wasn’t resilient or ‘gritty’ enough to cut it, right?

However, several years later, this narrative I tell myself (and others) about what happened has changed, and I feel grateful now for deviating from the plan and for leaving jobs that I knew weren’t right for me. 

Whilst we can all experience ‘get-there-itis’ at times when it comes to career-based decisions, and we may even persist with a job that isn’t right for us because society doesn’t value ‘quitters’. Sometimes aborting or deviating from the ‘safe’ plan is the best thing we can do. When the landing isn’t right, we should encourage ourselves and our students to trust our own judgement to change course.

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