What the hell effect


It’s very easy to get frustrated on the path of self improvement – almost too easy. We try to make a positive change, we slip up and make a mistake, and we quickly think “screw it” and give up.

Take for example, someone who is trying to quit smoking. They try to quit cold turkey – they successfully go a few days without a cigarette – then they cave in and smoke one while out socializing one night.

We often look back at an experience like this and consider it a failure. When we cave in to a bad habit even once, we begin to think “what the hell” and just give up entirely.

Psychologists are starting to call this the “what the hell” effect.

One study published in Appetite illustrates this effect perfectly. They found that individuals who were dieting ate more cookies after they had already been served a “larger slice” of pizza.

In other words, individuals who were dieting and ate the “larger slice” of pizza had a “what the hell” effect, so they ended up eating more cookies than dieters who didn’t eat the “larger slice” (and therefore, didn’t feel as bad about eating the pizza).

The “what the hell” effect applies to many different areas of life – eating, smoking, alcohol, drugs, or any bad habit that we are trying to cut back on.

Another study published in the Psychology of Addictive Behaviors points out that sometimes addiction is better overcome without taking a strict vow of abstinence.

This is because when someone practices abstinence, they are much more likely to experience the “what the hell” effect once they make their first mistake.

To avoid this “what the hell” effect, it’s important to recognize that self improvement isn’t a linear process, but instead a very jagged and dynamic path.

Sometimes you take two steps forward, one step back, one step forward, two steps back, two steps forward, and it continues on and on. But you can’t let any single mistake distract you from the “bigger picture” of progress that you are making.

Sure, maybe you gave in and smoked a cigarette, but you went 3 days without one too – so that has to count for something – and you have to start somewhere. Don’t allow one small mistake to spiral out of control.


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