The What-The-Hell Effect

What-The-Hell Effect

Just one bite…

Most of us began yesterday’s Thanksgiving overindulgence with the best of intentions. I planned to eat the healthy stuff and skip dessert. Well, mostly skip dessert, but I’d hurt Mom’s feelings if I didn’t at least try her homemade pecan pie. And it’s good–really good.

Just one small piece…

And while I’m at it I’ll have to try my cousin’s pumpkin cheesecake, which is heavenly too. And even better with whipped cream.

Plus, it’s my niece’s birthday and she made a special cake…

Before I knew it, I’d had All The Desserts and was so stuffed I could barely move. But it isn’t all my fault! It’s an actual psychological phenomenon.

The What-The-Hell Effect

Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke, created a video that describes it perfectly.* The what-the-hell effect is the feeling you get when you’ve already exceeded your preset limit and feel that since you’ve already failed, you might as well fail spectacularly.

Not Just With Food

The what-the-hell effect doesn’t discriminate by topic. For example:

  • Your alarm goes off and you hit snooze. Just 5 minutes… Then just 5 more minutes… Then you realize you’re already late for Zumba, so you might as well skip class today.
  • You’ve already overspent your entertainment budget for the month and you won’t be able to make your car payment anyway, so why not attend one more concert?
  • Your vacation budget is already toast, and you can upgrade to a nicer suite with a better view for just a bit more (It’s a great deal, I promise!), so why not live it up a little?
  • You quit smoking last month but had a stressful day and bought a pack of cigarettes on the way home. Oh well, the addiction must be stronger than you are so it makes more sense to just give up than to keep trying.
  • You’ve overshared at the office and your coworkers are giving you the stink-eye. What are they looking at? Why not let loose on politics, religion, and personal relationship issues and really give them something to talk about?

And Not Just For One Day

The what-the-hell effect is a slippery slope and can not only ruin your day but your week, season, or life. If you let it.

You’ve missed work/school/working out today, so your streak is broken and you might as well take tomorrow off too. And the rest of the week…


You got a D in a class or didn’t get that promotion for which you worked your butt off. You might as well drop out of school or quit your job, right? You’ll never amount to anything anyway.


Knowledge Is Power

Reading this on your phone or laptop it’s easy to see that this reasoning is totally false. It’s actually ridiculous, and you’d never let your best friend get away with saying anything like it.

Yet the feelings are real, and they will come from time to time, so be prepared. When they sneak up on you, recognize them and have counterarguments ready for battle.

It Is What It Is–Nothing More, And Nothing Less

When you miss a goal or exceed a limit, be gentle on yourself. Don’t catastrophize. Armed with this knowledge and awareness, you’ll be able to make better, more informed choices as you move forward.

Treat yourself as you would a friend, with a pep talk rather than with judgment or shame. The damage done is minimal, so don’t make it worse.

  • Overeating today is only overeating today. It doesn’t mean your diet is ruined or you should have another cookie or ten. Tomorrow is a whole new day.
  • Being late to Zumba isn’t the end of the world. If you hurry, you can still enjoy most of the class and catch up with your friends.
  • Smoking one cigarette doesn’t mean you’re a smoker again. Toss the rest of the pack and go for a walk while you call a friend.

We will all slip up from time to time–Congratulations! You’re human! Hang in there and know that you’ve got this. Don’t let the little things get you down. Get right back on your horse and make the rest of your day great.

When have you felt that all was lost and you might as well give up, only to have everything turn out rosy? Please share your stories in the comments below.

*I highly recommend Ariely’s free Coursera class titled A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior.

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Comments 28

  1. Yes! Thanks for sharing the resources. I never had a good way to describe this phenomenon until now! The “what the hell effect” is the perfect way to describe what happens when we go overboard. The most important thing to remember is that you don’t have to repeat the behavior.

    Honestly, this happens to me quite frequently but, for the most part, I’ve learned to push on with the goals I set and look at each day as a fresh start. Recognizing when it creeps into your day or your life is the key to overcoming it.

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  2. We’re all human and make mistakes as you noted. What’s important is what you do with the mistake. Do you learn from it or just give in? It’s all to common that I justify one more mistake on my diet based on the last one I made. Thankfully I don’t have that attitude for career or other important life matters or I’d not be where I am.

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  3. I’ve never heard of this before but I’ve felt it for sure! I agree that it can happen in many places in life. I’m thinking that we all may have one area that we fall into the “what the hell” zone more often too (or it’s harder to push through it). I’ve never done it with money – maybe with food on occasion but I have a sibling who lives it with money and more. Not a good cycle! My mom used to say that “more” of a certain type of delicious food doesn’t taste better – it’s just more. That is something I think about too!

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      That is true. The first few bites taste the best, but we keep eating, chasing that initial feeling. I think it can be the same with shopping or many other things. Hopefully, the awareness can help keep us on track.

  4. Oh man this has happened to me more than I like to admit. I think you brought up a key point that just because you slipped up that it doesn’t mean that you have to continue down the path. So what if you slept in and missed five minutes of Zumba. If you get in 55 minutes out of the one hour work out, it’s still a good workout.

    A lot of times I will go to the gym at work and think I’m in no mood to lift. But I always end up working out and thinking a bad workout is better than no workout at all.

    Thanks for sharing!!!

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      I’m right there with you! Sometimes I think I’ll just stay home in my pjs and read a book rather than go to an event, but once I go, I’m always so glad I did.
      Happy Holidays!

  5. Been there, rationalized that. I had plenty of excuses that only led to more misery. *shocker* I would do my best, try to wake up early, hit the snooze, and then berate myself. Ugh. I’ve been working harder to be more forgiving (and get to bed earlier, too). The day isn’t so bad when I can forgive myself a little more! 🙂

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  6. I haven’t heard it called the “What-the-Hell” effect. But I have a name for what happens the next day – it’s the “Clean Slate” theory.

    I don’t know why it happens, but for things we’d like to change, improve, implement – or just feel guilty about — one slip and we need to start all over again. If you start over again, the clean slate tricks you into feeling like all the other wrong moves you made never happened. I know this all too well with food. Lucky for me, there were absolutely no cookies among the desserts at Thanksgiving. I can abstain from a piece of pie but once I take a cookie I may as well eat ten (and start all over at zero tomorrow).

    Thanks for mentioning Dan Ariely. I’ll have to check him out.

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      Mmm. Coookiieesss… I can resist donuts, and some types of pie, but not cookies or brownies.
      Thanks for the Clean Slate theory. It is good to feel like you have a fresh start and new motivation as long as the “I’ll start tomorrow” doesn’t excuse today’s indulgences.

  7. Oh my YES! Love this blog post. I keep wanting to eat healthier but the holidays feels like such a horrible time for me, haha. I need to realize that one bad day doesn’t mean that I need to keep going down the wrong path.

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  8. I’ve never thought of discouragement in this way, but it sure does resonate and ring true! I’ve definitely fallen victim to the WTH effect! I’m not sure if it’s just me getting older and becoming more at peace with myself or something else, but I’ve noticed that I’m not nearly has hard on myself as I once was.

    These days, mistakes aren’t the end of the world, they’re an opportunity to get better. Setbacks don’t mean failure, just that I’ve got room to improve. I’m trying to not sweat the small stuff while trying to keep in mind that almost everything is “small stuff”.

    Love the post – thanks for sharing it!

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  9. Oh WOW – I feel like you know me, HAHAHA! This is totally my rationale when I sabotage my goals and I’m glad theres a word for it, now it will be easier to identify.

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  10. “Don’t catastrophize.” That’s a useful phrase that I’ll keep in my back pocket – thanks!

    I had a run-in with the snack drawer at work a few months ago. It’s inconveniently located right next to my desk and one week I observed that my more frequent visits were , well, just too frequent. I loaded up on the power of knowledge by watching the film Fed Up and have since been able to avoid the dreaded drawer of junk “food”. Whew!

    Thanks for this reminder to exercise kindness toward ourselves when we fall down.

    When I remember, I smile at my foibles and say “whoopsidaisies!” (because the word makes me laugh). :o)

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  11. Wow, this is so true. “Back in the day” the ‘what-the-hell’ effect for me applied especially to alcohol consumption, yikes! I’ve since grown up (a bit). 🙂

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  12. Interesting! To me, the probability of succumbing to the ‘what the hell’ effect depends on how the first part of every daily activity goes. If I am able to stay on track for the first few activities of the day, then the effect doesn’t show up. But if I feel this in the first one or two activities (like skipping doing yoga or rigorous walking), then I tend to say ‘what the hell’ for other over-indulgences that day. Interesting psychological concept. Maybe there is a related concept of ‘guilty pleasure’ where you try to compensate next day for the bad behavior on the previous day!

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      Oh yes, this happens to me too! It helps to make a list the night before of the most important things to do and start there before I get distracted by anything else.
      If I wake up and just go with the flow for the day, before I know it it’s noon and I’m still in my pajamas 🙂

  13. I’ve felt this effect all the time. So now, I’m going to use it in REVERSE!

    Now, every time I play tennis with a friend from 8:30am – 9:30am, I’m going to what the hell and at least do three sets of chest exercises and three sets of lat exercises in 15 minutes. What the heck. Better than nothing!

    Doing something is better than doing something. Things add up!


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  14. Great post. Like any disease, it feels better when you know it has a name. Misery loves company, and a named condition means there is a critical mass of fellow sufferers. Ugh, how many times I have said, “oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound, so I might as well buy the DELUXE version.” Heh, heh – thanks for writing.

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