Have You Fallen Victim to The “What The Hell” Effect?

What Is The "What The Hell" Effect?

Have you ever been on a diet, eaten something you weren’t supposed to and then told yourself, “screw it, I blew my diet for today, I might as well have more”. Or maybe you’re trying to quit smoking but you have a really bad craving in the morning, so you tell yourself you’ll have "just one” cigarette. But after you do, you tell yourself “well, I'm obviously not quitting today, so I might as well have another”. If you’ve done something like this before (and we all have), you’ve experienced what’s known as the “what-the-hell effect”.


The term the “what-the-hell effect” was first coined by researchers Janet Polivy and C. Peter Herman to describe this vicious cycle of indulgence, which leads to guilt, which in turn leads to more indulgence. And in case you’re wondering, yes, that's the actual name for it.

This phenomenon doesn’t just happen with eating or smoking, either. It happens with anything you're trying to avoid, whether that’s drinking, shopping, procrastination, surfing the internet and social media sites, gambling, etc.

Feel the pain

When you fail to resist something you know you should, you usually feel some combination of guilt, frustration, regret, shame and even helplessness. You tell yourself that you’re a loser or that you're lazy and not as good as other people. One moment of weakness makes you feel like you’ve lost the entire war.

When your brain senses those emotions, its automatic stress response is to try to protect you by activating its reward center. That sends a message to your conscious brain to start looking for something to make you feel good. And when you want something that will make you feel good, where do you look? Since we humans are creatures of habit, you're naturally drawn to the same things you normally associate with stress relief and pleasure. Unfortunately, those things are often the very same behaviors that led to the guilt in the first place. And to make matters even worse, stress actually heightens the sensitivity of your brain’s reward center, making any reward seem even more tempting and therefore harder to resist!

​Break the cycle

So how do you break this vicious cycle? Common sense says that you need to hold yourself accountable for your failure and “punish” yourself by being even more strict with yourself in the future. This deeply-ingrained belief stems from your childhood experience that says the way to modify “bad” behavior is with strict rules and boundaries, with punishment for violations. In reality, the childhood model of behavior change only perpetuates your feelings of guilt, which ensures that your brain will continue to seek relief through pleasure.

On the flip side, the most effective strategy to deal with the guilt and regret of a willpower failure is simply to forgive yourself. Forgiving and encouraging yourself to do better next time is much more effective at producing the desired change. This fact has been confirmed by many studies that show the effect different types of self-talk have on your motivation to make a behavior change. When you give in to your impulsive desires, just acknowledge that you made a mistake and tell yourself that it happens to everyone. Don’t take one moment of poor judgement as evidence that you can’t do something and should just give up.

You're not a superhero...and that's ok

When you make a bad choice, it doesn’t mean that you're an inherently bad or weak person. It just means that you’re human. Your capacity for self-control is not designed to be bulletproof or anything even close. Forgiving yourself seems counterintuitive, because it feels like you’re giving yourself permission to continue the bad behavior. That's why many people don’t do it. But it raises an important point. When you forgive yourself, you do not tell yourself that it’s ok to continue doing whatever you just did. You simply take responsibility for the behavior and resolve to do better next time.

The “what-the-hell effect” is a tactic your brain uses to distract yourself from the bad feelings associated with your negative self-talk. It does nothing to address the underlying problem, which is why it doesn't break the cycle. Instead, it just perpetuates and even deepens the cycle, in a downward spiral that can lead to depression or worse.

Why it works

Forgiving yourself, on the other hand, works because it disarms the guilt and shame. This is an important distinction. When you take responsibility for your actions and forgive yourself, you neutralize the guilt response right when it starts, so your brain doesn’t need to seek relief. This is how you break the cycle of counterproductive or destructive behavior.

I’d love to hear how you’ve used this strategy in your life and what kinds of results you got. Please let me know by leaving a comment below.