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Beware the "What-the-Hell Effect," Especially on Holidays!

If you stay mindful, a slip won't become a binge.

Credit: Wray Herbert, APS

"Oops! I didn't mean to eat that big piece of pie. There goes my diet. Oh well, what the hell! Since I've already blown my diet, I might as well have another piece. Uh-oh. Now I've really done it. What the hell! Might as well have a third piece...or was that my fourth piece?"

If you've ever found yourself thinking like this, you've experienced the "what-the-hell effect." You have a little slip, and the next thing you know your self-control is slip-sliding away. Depending on your personality and what you tell yourself, you might continue to binge for the meal, for the day, or even for the entire holiday season.

The "what-the-hell effect" is well known to willpower researchers such as Roy Baumeister. There's even a formal scientific term for it—counterregulatory eating—but since that's such a mouthful, let's just stick to the "what-the-hell effect." In their recent book, Willpower, Baumeister and co-author John Tierney cite numerous experiments that show that dieters often do okay until the inevitable day when they break their diet rules. Then they stop monitoring their eating ("Was that my fourth piece?") and ignore or are unaware of their feelings of fullness.

How can you avoid the what-the-hell effect? First, stop dieting! Dieters can become so preoccupied with following the rules of their diet that they can lose touch with their inner sensations of hunger and fullness. Moreover, if you are on an extreme diet, your hunger will propel you to gobble more than you intend—or even want. And diets don't work! 95% of dieters regain their lost weight within two years. Some dieters even develop eating disorders. Instead of dieting, follow a sensible eating plan.

Here's how to stop a holiday binge: Eat slowly and pay attention to how your body feels. Instead of skipping meals, eat healthy foods throughout the day to supply your brain with glucose and keep it happy. Alcohol makes it harder to monitor your eating, so avoid or limit it. Make a plan about how you'll handle the holiday feast—deciding beforehand to indulge in one dessert only, for example, or to refuse filler foods like chips. More ideas here.

Finally and maybe most important, check your thinking. Are you engaging in "what-the-hell" rationalization? If so, counter that destructive thinking with better self-talk like:

  • "Stop the what-the-hell thinking already! I deserve to take better care of myself."
  • "I'll forgive myself for this slip and stop this bingelet so I don't make a bad situation worse."
  • "A little lapse doesn't have to become a big relapse."
  • "I'll wait for a while before I take second helpings, and use the power of later."
  • "Every little bit helps—so I'll stop eating now."

Just being mindful of the "what-the-hell effect" will help you get it under control.

(c) Meg Selig. All rights reserved.

I'm the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009). Please "like" my facebook page here, and you will receive periodic messages and musings about habit change, willpower, motivation, and the good life. Follow me on my new Twitter account @MegSelig1.


Baumeister, R. & Tierney, J. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength (2011). NY: Penguin Press.