Unfulfilled Plans and Unplanned Actions

Nelson Foote, Hunter College
[ to cite ]:
Nelson Foote (1974) ,"Unfulfilled Plans and Unplanned Actions", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 529-531.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 529-531


Nelson Foote, Hunter College

[The data reported in this study were collected as part of a three generation family study (Hill, 1970) based upon 120 grandparent, 120 parent, and 120 young married families.]

Finding: Different patterns of planning and acting among generations and areas of activity can be roughly summarized in terms of planfulness of actions.

Of a total of 1388 plans that were studied, only 31 per cent were carried into action. Of 1193 actions, about one-third to one-half were preceded by a plan. Unfulfilled plans and unplanned actions predominate over fulfilled plans and planned actions in all generations. Planfulness in this sense is highest among the grandparents, next highest among the children, and lowest among the parents, although probably not as low as their freedom from constraints makes feasible. The ranking of the six areas in planfulness, from the most overplanned to the most underplanned, is as follow: 1) residential moving; 2) remodeling-redecorating; 3) financial assets changes; 4) durables acquisitions; 5) automobile acquisitions; and 6) occupational changes. While there was a slightly different mix of changes during the year for each generation, apart from the obvious decline of activity of all kinds,from the oldest to the youngest, the decline in activity in each area seems to accord with the phases of the family life cycle with rough consistency. Barring future depressions as severe as that of the Thirties, which so severely slowed down the advance of the parent generation and left them with a lingering habit of financial prudence, these correspondences between generations and family life cycle stages in planfulness should become even more consistent in the future.

Finding: Unfulfilled plans are far more often postponed than canceled and the reasons given for nonfulfillment of the canceled plans show that many are canceled only because satisfactory substitute actions have occurred.

Of the two types of deviation from the rational conception of all actions as fulfillments of previous plans, the first--unfulfilled plans--is apparently the lesser deviation. Although only a minority of plans get carried into action at the time intended, the tendency for a plan once made eventually to be executed emerges very strongly from investigation of the reasons given by respondents for nonfulfillments.

Whenever a subsequent interview disclosed that an intended action had not occurred during the ensuing interval, the respondent was asked "What happened?" to account for the discrepancy between plan and action. The reasons voiced were so highly varied, while the numbers of nonfulfillments were so infrequent in the Minneapolis samples that meaningful classifications and quantitative tabulations could not be made in detail. Only the crude quantitative generalization can be made that most nonfulfillments are postponements; a much Smaller proportion are cancellations. Close scrutiny of the reasons given for cancellations reveals, moreover, that even these are not necessarily outright cancellations, as often as not, they are only cancellations in the sense that some change of plan and substitute action was taken in place of the one specified.

The picture of pressure within the child generation--of competition among alternative actions--includes, as noted, pressure on space and time as well as money. As visible in the reasons quoted, this pressure leads to numerous temporary expedients being adopted as solutions until a more permanent solution becomes feasible) e.g., repairing, borrowing. But such expedients frequently fail unexpectedly And when they do, some unplanned action is usually required in order for the family to adapt to the situation. These unplanned actions,in turn, frequently lead to postponement of plans in other areas of activities; i.e., the pressure is transmitted to areas of lesser urgency.

Finding: Unplanned actions occur for a variety of reasons which differ among generations and areas of activity, but nearly all these reasons disclose a prior policy or latent tendency to act appropriately when specific precipitating events occur.

The second type of deviation from the rational conception of all actions as fulfillments of plans is unplanned actions. Just as only a minority of plans are fulfilled, only a minority of actions are planned, and likewise this deviation from rationality is not as severe as it may seem on the surface. This is true even where the initiative for the unplanned actions appears to come from others, rather than from the actors. In the grandparent generation, for example, unplanned acquisitions of durables are often gifts from their children; the receipt of gifts is quite regularly expected on such occasions as Christmas and anniversaries, even though the nature of the gift is sometimes a surprise. However, the point that actions are preceded by expectations if not by plans can be generalized beyond the expectation of gifts. Virtually all the actions taken were in some sense impending, either explicit in some kind of family policy, or implicit in some kind of latent tendency, to act in characteristic ways under circumstances generally anticipated except with regard to their exact timing. Thus, unplanned actions may be said to grade off from planned actions in deriving from expectations that are just as real but less specific than indefinite plans.

In summary, for all generations and areas of activity, the reasons given by Minneapolis families for their unplanned actions display reasonableness, not rationality. Unplanned actions are about as numerous as unfulfilled plans, and both together greatly outnumber the actions based on plans that are carried into action on expected schedule. What comes out of this intensive examination of the kinds of reasons stated is not only an appreciation of their reasonableness but also of the way in which these outcomes grade into each other. Just as unfulfilled Plans tend eventually to be realized, at least in substitute form, so unplanned actions all seem to be derived from pre-existing expectations or latent wants that are activated by a wide variety of contingencies, most of which are predictable, except as to their exact timing. In much of the previous work on the use of plans as predictors of actions, the common assumption seems to have been that these two types of deviation from formal rationality are a regrettable source of error, the removal of which wouLd greatly contribute to the usefulness of expressed plans as statistical predictors. The foregoing analysis has shown that probably the best direction for progress in the prediction of consumer behavior will not come so much from a more rigorous isolation of those plans which wilL indeed be fulfilled on schedule, as from a more sensitive identification of those conditions that wilL either cause postponement of specific plans or the activation or acceleration of latent intentions.


Hill, Reuben. Family Development in Three Generations. Cambridge, Mass.: Schenkman, 1970.