This column will change your life: the what-the-hell effect

The "what-the-hell effect" – that's what it's really called, by serious scholars, writing in dignified publications – is one of those psychological phenomena that doesn't require much explaining once you've heard the name. For decades, we've known it's a major reason why diets fail. You resolve, say, to eat no sugary foods. But then you can't resist one of the cupcakes that someone brought for their birthday and left in the office kitchen. Healthwise, this minor slip-up is insignificant, but it's hugely consequential goal-wise: your hopes of a sugar-free day are screwed – and if you're going to fail, you petulantly conclude, you might as well have fun doing so. Which means more cake, perhaps with a chaser of Skittles. You decide to start afresh tomorrow, when things will be different. Except they never are. And so, to paraphrase F Scott Fitzgerald, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly to the snack machine.

The what-the-hell effect also sabotages our spending (when you've "broken into" a £20 note, you're far likelier to buy things with the change) and even our attempts to behave ethically: once you've cheated a bit, you're more likely to cheat a lot; you might as well, since you're already a cheat. Now, new work led by Yael Zemack-Rugar, a US business school researcher, suggests that this is a fairly consistent personality trait: if you're prone to the what-the-hell effect in one domain, you'll be prone to it elsewhere. In other words, it's not a problem you've got with money, food, or honesty. It's a problem with sequential choices in general. In the moment after you realise you've erred, do you throw up your hands, or engage in what Zemack-Rugar calls "course correction" instead?

The what-the-hell effect is usually interpreted, rightly, as an argument for setting more realistic goals. Instead of promising you'll eat no unhealthy foods, or spend nothing on fripperies, build in a safety valve: permit yourself one self-indulgent item a day, or a certain amount of money a week. Better yet, replace "inhibitional" goals – the intention to stop doing things – with "acquisitional goals", focused on obtaining or achieving something. But the effect illustrates something more profound, too: that whenever you're trying to change how you do something, the important part to focus on isn't how often you succeed. It's what you do after the numerous times you fail.

Since mindfulness is officially so mainstream that even MPs are doing it, here's a pertinent example: in meditation, many teachers will tell you, the crucial bit isn't concentrating on your breath. Rather, it's the bit where you realise you've stopped concentrating on your breath, and drag yourself back to it. (Meditation teachers would never say "drag", though. They'd say "gently, non-judgmentally return", bless them.) That returning is the thing you're practising. A self-help cliche makes a similar point: for 90% of its journey, an aeroplane will be off course, yet it reaches its destination nonetheless. I'm told this is aeronautically dubious, but you get the point: course-correcting is the essence of good flying, not an aberration from it. Anyway, who'd want to be on board a plane with a captain whose response to making a minor error was to say, "What the hell!" then give up trying to avoid further errors? Not me.

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