How to combat the what-the-hell effect

You're trying to stick to a healthy eating plan, feeling good about your progress. Then, you succumb to temptation, and eat a slice of cake. Suddenly, a nagging voice whispers, "Well, you've already blown it, so might as well enjoy the whole cake!"


Can you relate? If so, you’re not the only one to fall prey to what psychologists have dubbed the what-the-hell effect. In one study, participants, both dieters and non-dieters, were told to fast beforehand. They arrived, ready to taste-test some cookies. But before the cookies, everyone was served a slice of pizza. Everyone received the exact same slice, but some participants were presented with pizza that was subtly made to appear larger compared to the others.


By making some participants think they'd eaten more, the researchers wanted to observe the effect of this perceived indulgence on their subsequent behaviour.


The results were striking. When it came to the cookies, those on diets who believed they'd overindulged with the bigger-looking pizza consumed significantly more cookies, over 50 per cent more in fact, compared to those who weren’t dieting. Interestingly, when dieters perceived themselves as having stayed within their calorie limit, their cookie consumption matched that of participants who weren't dieting at all.


In other words, believing they had overstepped set off the what-the-hell effect.


Note that the what-the-hell effect is not confined to food. For example, someone may be diligently saving for a holiday, only to splurge on a smaller purchase. Disheartened, saving begins to feel futile, and justifying bigger expenses becomes easier. Slip-ups in one area can trigger overindulgence in others, creating a ripple effect that negatively impacts your self-esteem and motivation. Shopping budgets, fitness routines, drinking alcohol, academic goals – the what-the-hell attitude can wreak havoc on these and other areas.


Essentially, the what-the-hell effect refers to the tendency for people to abandon self-control efforts and engage in counter-productive behaviours when they perceive a failure or setback in their pursuit of a goal. People who feel they have already strayed from their desired path may give up entirely and engage in more extreme versions of the very behaviour they were trying to avoid. A small setback makes you throw your hands up and say, “Why bother? I already messed up, might as well go all out”.



It’s important to not buy into this unhelpful, all-or-nothing thinking. The reality is that you’re not going to become obese because you ate one muffin; you’re not going to fall into terrible debt because you made one impulsive purchase; you’re not going to fail your exams because you watched one football match on television instead of sticking to your study plan.


When you have had a lapse, it’s as if you have run a red light, says CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) researcher Dr Judith Beck. She points out that you wouldn't say to yourself, 'Oh well, I've already run a red light. I might as well run five more.' No, you would likely say, ‘I made a mistake. I'll be more careful from now on.'


We need to adapt the same attitude when we err in other areas, as opposed to taking a what-the-hell approach. Remember, a lapse is not a relapse. A lapse is a temporary setback or slip-up, while a relapse is a return to old, unhealthy behaviours. By recognizing that a lapse is not the same as a complete failure, and by learning from the experience, you can quickly get back on track and continue making progress towards your goal.


It’s important, then, to remember that you are not doomed to spiral down with every misstep. Reframing lapses as learning opportunities can help you combat the what-the-hell effect.


Setting realistic goals, too, is important, as aiming for perfection sets one up for disappointment. Instead, it’s wise to set achievable goals and celebrate small wins to build momentum.


Finally, it’s important to practice self-compassion, because beating yourself up only fuels the negativity. Instead, acknowledge the slip-up, forgive yourself, recommit to your goals, and bounce back stronger.

(First published in Southern Star on 28/3/2024)