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The planning fallacy

Dr. Simon Moss


The planning fallacy is the tendency of individuals to underestimate the duration that is needed to complete most tasks (e.g., Kahneman & Tversky, 1979& f or a review, see Buehler, Griffin, & Ross, 2002). For example, if individuals predict they will complete a task within three weeks, the activity might actually require a month. This tendency has been observed in many settings (e.g., Connolly & Dean, 1997).

A striking example of the planning fallacy was published by Buehler, Griffin, and Ross (1994). In this study, a class of students were asked to estimate the date at which they will finish their thesis. They actually completed their thesis, on average, in 56 days. However, they predicted they will complete their thesis in 34 days. Indeed, even when asked when they might complete their thesis if "everything went as well as it possibly could", the mean response was still 49 days.

Several factors reduce this planning fallacy. Individuals are less likely, for example, to underestimate the time that needs to be devoted to tasks after they consider three obstacles that could impede their progress (Sanna & Schwarz, 2004). Furthermore, the planning fallacy is amplified in team settings (Buehler, Messervey, & Griffin, 2005).

Fewer studies have examined the consequences of this planning fallacy. Presumably, as a consequence of the planning fallacy, individuals do not set themselves enough time to complete key tasks, exacerbating pressure and stress.

Nevertheless, in some instances, the planning fallacy can accelerate progress: When individuals estimate they will complete a task within a short period, they actually fulfill their duties more rapidly (Buehler, Peetz, & Griffin, 2010). This benefit, however, arises only when individuals can complete the task within one session.

Mechanisms that underpin the planning fallacy

Focal biases

The planning fallacy--the tendency to underestimate the duration that is needed to complete a task--has been ascribed to several possible mechanisms. Many of these explanations, however, assume that people inordinate focus on the event or activity, neglecting key sources of information. Because other sources of information are overlooked, estimates of the duration needed to complete some task are inaccurate (e.g., Buehler & Griffin, 2003).

Specifically, because individuals confine their attention to the event or task, sometimes called focalism, three classes of information are neglected. First, individuals tend to disregard the time that was needed to complete similar tasks or activities in the past (cf Kahneman & Lovallo, 1993& Kahneman & Tversky, 1979). That is, they perceive the specific task or activity they need to complete as unique. They often underrate how similar this task might be to previous activities they have completed& they disregard the considerable time that was needed to complete past tasks.

Second, when they construct plans, individuals often consider the best possible outcome (Newby-Clark, Ross, Buehler, Koehler, & Griffin, 2000). They do not consider alternative possibilities. They might, therefore, underrate the likelihood of unexpected, but plausible, complications and obstacles.

Indeed, when individuals formulate some plan, they do not like to reflect upon previous experiences (Buehler & Griffin, 2003). They like to consider positive outcomes& they do not want to remember past difficulties.

Third, individuals tend to focus their attention on the overall task and not on the constituent acts. They will, therefore, tend to disregard some of the key actions that need to be undertaken (Kruger & Evans, 2004). Thus, when they predict the time that might be needed to complete some task, they might disregard a few of these important acts.

Consistent with this possibility, after individuals focus their attention on the outcomes or benefits of some task, the planning fallacy is inflated: Individuals become even more likely to underestimate the duration that is needed to complete some task (Taylor, Pham, Rivkin, & Armor, 1998). Presumably, as individuals consider the outcome of some task, they become especially likely to disregard some of key facets or acts that need to be completed. In contrast, after individuals consider each constituent of a task, the planning fallacy subsides (Kruger & Evans, 2004).

Anchoring and adjustment

The planning fallacy might also emanate from anchoring and adjustment. To demonstrate, in typical studies, individuals are asked to estimate the date at which they will complete some task. Their initial estimate, called the anchor, is perhaps the same week. Next, they adjust their estimate from this anchor to future days or weeks. Traditionally, as many studies show, in many settings, individuals do not adjust sufficiently from initial anchors. Their final estimate is biased by their initial estimate (LeBoeuf & Shafir, 2009).

LeBoeuf and Shafir (2009) uncovered some findings that substantiate this possibility. In one study, some participants were warned that adjustments are often inadequate. This warning offset the planning fallacy.

Furthermore, in another study, some participants estimated the number of weeks, rather than days, they would need to complete some task. These participants were more likely to estimate longer times. If participants focus on weeks instead of days, even a few adjustments from the anchor could generate a prediction of one month. If participants focus on days instead of weeks, a few adjustments will not diverge appreciably from the anchor (LeBoeuf & Shafir, 2009).


Some motivations have been shown to amplify the planning fallacy. To illustrate, individuals are sometimes motivated to complete a task efficiently. They might, for example, receive a monetary incentive to complete a task within a confined duration. These incentives have been shown to amplify the planning fallacy (e.g., Byram, 1997).

Buehler, Griffin, and MacDonald (1997) showed the planning fallacy might arise from an interaction between motivations and cognitive biases, like focalism. Specifically, they showed that incentives to complete a task rapidly tended to amplify the planning fallacy: Individuals who were motivated to complete their tax returns early were more likely to underestimate the time they would need to complete the task.

Interestingly, however, these incentives also amplified the focal biases. When incentives to complete the task early were offered, individuals were even more likely to divert their attention from previous occasions in which similar activities were completed. They instead confined their attention to this specific task (Buehler, Griffin, & MacDonald, 1997). In short, the motivation to believe they can complete a task efficiently amplifies focal biases, exacerbating the planning fallacy.

Factors that amplify or inhibit the planning fallacy

Perceived power

When individuals experience a sense of power, the planning fallacy is especially pronounced (see Weick & Guinote, 2010& see also perceived power). Specifically, when individuals experience a sense of power, they do not consider a broad range of cues& they focus inordinately on the principal goals, disregarding other peripheral sources of information. They should thus be especially likely to disregard similar events in the past as well as neglect possible complications or constituent acts. Thus, power is likely to amplify many of the mechanisms that underpin a planning fallacy.

Weick and Guinote (2010) uncovered some results that substantiate this possibility. That is, some participants were told their opinions would affect the final decision about some policy, to elicit a sense of power. Other participants were informed their opinions would not affect this decision. In addition, participants were told to estimate they time they would need to complete some assignment. The actual time was recorded as well. If participants experienced a sense of power, they were more likely to underestimate the time that would be needed to complete some task.

A subsequent study generated similar results. The effect of power on the planning fallacy persisted even after self efficacy was controlled (Weick & Guinote, 2010). Furthermore, in this study, all participants completed the same task& in contrast, in the previous study, participants chose their own activity.

In another study, some of the participants were also asked to consider the time they needed to complete similar tasks in the past. This reflection diminished the effect of power on the planning fallacy (Weick & Guinote, 2010). This results implies that feelings of power usually distract attention from previous occasions in which they undertook similar tasks. If participants are told to consider these previous occasions, therefore, this tendency is curbed and the planning fallacy subsides.

Social cues

Furthermore, in team settings, individuals are especially likely to underestimate the time that is needed to complete some project (Buehler, Messervey, & Griffin, 2005). Presumably, in these settings, individuals feel the need to impress other people. They want to be perceived as optimistic and efficient. This need to impress other people has been shown to magnify the planning fallacy (Pezzo, Pezzo, & Stone, 2006).


If individuals deliberate upon three obstacles that could arise--or twelve factors that could promote progress--the planning fallacy dissipates, as shown by Sanna and Schwarz (2004). In particular, individuals can readily identify three obstacles that could impede progress. As a consequence, they assume, perhaps unconsciously, that many other obstacles could transpire (for the underlying mechanism, see Ease of retrieval). Their optimism subsides& they feel they might need more time to complete their activities.

In contrast, individuals cannot as readily identify twelve obstacles that could impede progress. If they attempt this task, they assume the number of impediments is low& their optimism increases. The planning fallacy is amplified (Sanna & Schwarz, 2004).

Interestingly, when individuals deliberate on the main activities they will need to undertake to complete their tasks, the planning fallacy often increases. In one study, for example, reported by Buehler and Griffin (2003), participants first estimated the time that is needed to complete their Christmas shopping. Some participants were asked to consider the main steps they will need to complete to fulfill this task, including when, where, and how they will undertake these tasks.

Relative to a control group who did not undertake this exercise, the planning fallacy was more pronounced after individuals deliberated over these activities. This deliberation might confine their thoughts to this specific task. They become less inclined to reflect upon past activities or other complications, exacerbating the planning fallacy. These findings, thus, are consistent with the proposition that planning fallacies partly arise because people focus inordinately on the forthcoming task in lieu of other cues (Buehler & Griffin, 2003).

Some forms of deliberation can curb this bias. When employees form implementation intentions to complete a task, the planning fallacy dissipates (Koole & Spijker, 2000). That is, after individuals are asked to consider the time and place in which they will complete an activity, their predictions are more accurate. These implementation intentions reduce the likelihood that other factors will distract their progress. Furthermore, because these implementation intentions are formed rapidly, they might not exacerbate focal biases.

Immediate versus future projects

The planning fallacy might depend on whether the project is scheduled to be completed in the immediate or remote future (Peetz, Buehler, & Wilson, 2010). According to construal level theory, when events seem proximal, rather than distant, in time, individuals form more concrete, tangible representations. When they contemplate a task, such as sending an email, their attention is directed to the precise actions, like "using a keyboard", instead of abstract concepts, like "communicating". This focus on concrete details can either amplify or inhibit the planning fallacy, depending on the primary thoughts of individuals.

To clarify, when individuals contemplate the duration that is needed to complete a task, they sometimes orient their attention to possible obstacles, like "I might be interrupted by telephone calls". If they plan to complete the task soon, and thus focus on concrete details, these obstacles seem especially salient. The planning fallacy dissipates: That is, individuals predict they will not complete the task rapidly (Peetz, Buehler, & Wilson, 2010).

In contrast, some individuals orient their attention to avenues or activities that will facilitate performance, like "I will contact three friends to help". In this instance, if they plan to complete the task soon, these provisions and opportunities seem especially salient. The planning fallacy will be amplified (Peetz, Buehler, & Wilson, 2010).

Peetz, Buehler, and Wilson (2010) conducted a study that substantiates these arguments. Participants needed to estimate the duration they will need to complete some task, such as purchase gifts for Christmas or complete a school assignment--either weeks or months before undertaking this activity. In addition, the thoughts they entertained as they estimated these durations were sought. When the tasks needed to be completed in several weeks rather than months, the planning fallacy diminished if participants referred to obstacles but increased if participants referred to provisions and plans.

Thus, to curb the planning fallacy, if the task needs to be completed very ssoon, individuals should be encouraged to identify two or three key obstacles. If the task needs to be completed in several months or years, individuals should be encouraged to identify many provisions and opportunities they could utilize to facilitate performance.

Unpacking tasks

Hadjichristidis, Summers, and Thomas (2014) showed the effect of unpacking a task--that is, focusing on specific subtasks or facets of this task--on the planning fallacy is complex. Unpacking can diminish, amplify, or not even affect the tendency of people to underestimate the duration that is needed to complete tasks.

To illustrate, in one study, conducted by Hadjichristidis, Summers, and Thomas (2014), participants were informed they would need to format some text. In particular, they received some unformatted text and some formatted text. They were told they will need to modify the unformatted text to match the formatted text. Their task was to estimate the duration they would need to complete this task.

Before estimating this duration, some participants were merely asked to estimate how long they would need to ensure the unformatted text resembles the formatted text. Other participants received the same question but with the phrase "including bold and italics". This phrase orients attention to a facet of this task that is short and simple. Finally, some participants received the same question, except the sentence ended with "including special characters" together with a few specific characters. This phrase orients attention to a facet of this task that is difficult and prolonged.

If a facet of the task that is shorter and simpler was emphasized, participants underestimated the duration of this task appreciably. If a facet of the task that is difficult and prolonged was emphasized, this bias diminished. Presumably, when attention is focused on more demanding features of the task, individuals become more sensitive to the complications& the planning fallacy thus subsides.

In a second study, participants imagined they had completed a jog and were about to prepare before a date. Their task was to estimate the time that would be needed to prepare. In one condition, participants were asked to reflect upon various facets of this activity, including removing their shoes and jogging clothes--an early component of the preparation. In another condition, participants were asked to reflect upon various facets including donning the clothes they selected to wear on the date--a late component of the preparation. If an early rather than late component was emphasized, participants tended to perceive the duration of this task as shorter. Arguably, when people focus on the early components, they are more aware of all the facets of this activity they need to complete. If they focus on the later components, they feel, on some level, they have completed most of the activity. This pattern of observations was uncovered only when people focused on facets of the task that were atypical of the overall activity.

Time span

In some studies, participants must complete an extensive task, comprising several facets. Participants must then predict the date at which they will complete the task. In other studies, participants must complete a more confined task. They must then predict the time at which they will complete this activity.

The planning fallacy has been observed in both contexts, with overestimates of time ranging from 20% to 50% (see Dunning, 2007). Nevertheless, when the task is completed over an extended time, this fallacy is especially pronounced.

Motion perspective and temporal perspective

Motion perspective also moderates the magnitude of this planning fallacy. Specifically, individuals can experience either an ego or time motion perspective. When individuals experience an ego motion perspective, time is perceived as stationary, and individuals feel they shift towards the future and away from the past. They might, for example, use phrases like "As we approach Christmas...". When individuals experience a time motion perspective, individuals perceive themselves as stationary, and feel that time approaches or retreats from them. Phrases like "As Christmas approache..." represent an example of this mindset.

According to Boltz and Yum (2010), when individuals adopt a time motion instead of an ego motion perspective, they do not feel a sense of control over the passage of time. Hence, they might feel that time could approach more rapidly. The deadline feels more proximal. Because time seems proximal, individuals orient their attention to details, instead of to intangible patterns, called a concrete construal (see construal level theory). Consequently, they become more cognizant of potential complications, curbing the planning fallacy.

Boltz and Yum (2010) conducted a pair of studies to assess this proposition. In one study, motion perspective was manipulated. For example, to prime an ego motion perspective, participants watched a video, comprising nature scenes, like clouds, in which the camera moved across an open terrain. Hence, the viewer felt they were moving across the plane. To prime a time motion perspective, the camera was still, and the clouds approaches or retreated. Therefore, the viewer felt that nature was moving instead.

Alternatively, to manipulate motion perspective, participants were exposed to different instructions. Specifically, to prime an ego motion perspective, they received instructions like "As we approach the end of this hour...". To prime a time motion perspective, they received instructions like "As the end of this hour approaches us..."

Finally, participants completed a task in which they needed to sort psychological journals. They also needed to predict the time they would need to complete this task. In practice, the task could be completed within 15 to 20 minutes or so.

Over 70% of participants demonstrated a planning fallacy, underestimating the time that would be needed to complete the task. Nevertheless, a time motive perspective was shown to curb the planning fallacy.

Other subtle changes to the instructions also affected the magnitude of this planning fallacy. The phrase like "You still have an hour to complete this task" is more likely to exacerbate the planning fallacy than "You only have an hour to complete the task". References to "only" imply that time is limited. The deadline feels more proximal. A concrete construal is evoked, and specific complications are more apparent.

Perceived effort of the task

If tasks are perceived as more arduous and demanding, the planning fallacy might diminish. At least, as Jiga-Boy, Clark, and Semin (2010) highlighted, when individuals feel they need to devote considerable effort into a task, the deadline feels closer in time. The planning fallacy, therefore, could potentially abate.

Scenarios that are difficult to describe

As Min and Arkes (2013) showed, if a plan is difficult to imagine vividly, the planning fallacy dissipates. That is, people tend to assume that any event that can be readily or vividly imagined is feasible and likely. Plans that cannot be readily or vividly imagined are perceived as relatively unfeasible or difficult. People assume these plans cannot be implemented rapidly, and this pessimism diminishes the planning fallacy.

To illustrate, in one study, the participants were individuals who were engaged to be married. Individuals identified an activity they needed to complete to plan their wedding, such as selecting a reception hall. They needed to write about either two steps or five steps they would complete to fulfill this plan. Finally, participants were asked to specify the date at which they would complete this task. If asked to specify five steps--a task that is relatively difficult--the planning fallacy diminished.

A difficult task provokes a sense of unease, usually interpreted as a problem or complication, diminishing optimism and offsetting the planning fallacy. Consistent with this interpretation, when participants were informed that feelings of difficulty are natural and do not reflect a problem, the difficulty associated with the five steps did not as effectively curb the planning fallacy.

Related issues

Time management

Burt, Weststrate, Brown, and Champion (2010) developed a measure, comprising 46 items, intended to facilitate the management of time, potentially curbing the implications of planning fallacies. These researchers undertook a series of three studies, designed to validate the scales and show that time management can reduce turnover intentions and stress. Factor analyses uncovered five distinct factors of time management strategies.

The first factor was supervision. Typical items are "Supervisors provide clear task guidelines", "Task priorities are regularly discussed with supervisors", and "Supervisors are interested in the processes used to complete tasks". This factor reflects whether or not supervisors facilitate the prioritization of tasks and the refinement of procedures.

The second factor was coworker interaction. Sample items include "Co-workers discuss the time required to complete" or "Staff remind each other of appointments". These items gauge whether colleagues discuss task priorities and schedules with each other as well as help one another fulfill these plans.

The third factor was called job descriptive processes. Items include "Performance is reviewed within a performance appraisal system", "Staff develop lists of tasks", and "Descriptive Reviews of goal achievement are undertaken on a regular basis". This factor represents the extent to which formal procedures have been established to increase the likelihood that deadlines are fulfilled.

The fourth factor was support for time management processes, typified by items like "Training in time management techniques is provided" and "Reminder notes are frequently used". These items indicate whether the organization offers adequate information, training, and feedback about time management.

The final factor was time values. Items include" Time is considered to be an important resource", representing whether or not time is valued and cherished.

In general, the psychometric properties were encouraging.. The five factors were, typically, correlated to a moderate extent, with r values primarily approaching .4. Test retest correlations across a month for each factor exceeded .4 for all factors and exceeded .54 for all factors except time values, representing modest reliability. In a sample of 250 aircraft maintenance workers, Cronbach's alpha exceeded .7 for each factor. Confirmatory factor analysis for the five factors generated an RMSEA of .06. The extent to which participants perceived life as stressful was negatively associated with all five factors--although only supervisory time management demonstrated a unique contribution once the other facets were controlled. Likewise, turnover intentions were inversely related to all five factors, but support for time management processes was the only unique predictor.

In short, these findings indicate that time management should not be devolved solely to employees. The organization needs to cultivate a culture that facilitates time management.

The team scaling fallacy

In general, managers are more likely to underestimate the duration that a large team, rather than a small team, needs to complete tasks, called the team scaling fallacy (Staats, Milkman, & Fox, 2012). For example, managers could assume that a team of 4 people may complete a task in 5 days and a team of 2 people may complete the same task in 10 days. In practice, however, the team of 4 people may actually complete the task in 9 days and the team of 2 people may complete the task in 11 days.

Staats, Milkman, and Fox (2012) ascribe the team scaling fallacy to the inclination of people to underestimate the complications of teams. That is, when teams are large, the individuals experience several benefits: They can often specialize in the tasks they enjoy and can access more extensive knowledge. However, large teams also evoke complications. Information is not communicated as effectively. People may become unmotivated rather than assume responsibility. And conflict is more likely (see also optimal distinctiveness theory). People tend to be more attuned to the benefits, instead of the drawbacks, of large teams. Therefore, they overestimate the efficiency of large teams.

The team scaling fallacy is different to the planning fallacy. The planning fallacy relates only to the inclination of individuals to underestimate the time that is needed to complete their own tasks.

Staats, Milkman, and Fox (2012) conducted a series of studies that demonstrate this tea scaling fallacy. For example, in one study, teams of two or four completed a LEGO task, in which they needed to construct a specific pattern. Other participants then estimated the duration that will be needed to complete this task. These estimates were unduly optimistic, especially for teams of four instead of two. A field study of software development projects also showed that estimates of the number of hours to complete a job were more optimistic when the teams were large.


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