What the hell effect

Today, I learned about a term coined by psychologists who study willpower called the “What the hell effect”.  At first I thought it must be a statement of disbelief.  Rather it is a statement of belief.  A belief that because I didn’t fulfill a stated goal, I should just really give up completely.

An easy example:  You go out with friends after work for happy hour on Friday afternoon.  Having set a goal to not eat between meals and to watch your portions, you plan to not eat, but only share a diet drink.  Those appetizers are too appealing so you eat an order of french fries.  You missed your goal.  Rather than stopping there, you decide to just let it go–what the hell–and order potato skins with sour cream and then dinner with beer and dessert.

Closer to work, we have been told that we need to let other people share their opinions in a team meeting.  It is suggested that we stop immediately putting down others’ ideas before they are barely explored.  The first couple of ideas in the brainstorming session go well, but that crazy idea just you over the edge came along and you couldn’t hold you tongue.  Well, you say, that didn’t work, so the next idea met your response too, and the next, and the next.  Before the meeting was over, no one was sharing their ideas in your presence.  

Failing to meet the goal is not our biggest issue.  Rather, the problem is why we can’t accept that we missed our stated goal, and accept just getting close to our goal?  Apparently it comes down to shame.  An initial failure reduces our willpower even that much more and one failure leads to another and to another….

So, is there any way to overcome this effect?  Research suggests the answer is recognizing when the what-the-hell effect occurs:

  1. When goals are seen as short-term, i.e. today or tomorrow compared with next week or next month,
  2. And you’re trying to stop doing something, like eating or drinking, shooting people down in meetings, checking email 15 minutes.

These points suggest the what-the-hell effect can be avoided by having longer-term goals.  Rather than not eating anything between meals today, and setting that same goal everyday.  Make the goal to not eat anything between meals for a week.  This makes one slip seem a little less of a failure compared to all of the other opportunities you have for success for the remainder of the week.   

Reframing a goal from a goal to stop an action into a goal to start an action can also reduce this effect. Rather than saying that you must stop finding holes in others ideas, you might say that you need to start allowing others in the room to speak for 10 minutes before you speak up with your thoughts on their ideas.  

Adjusting our goals in this way gives us a good chance of side-stepping one of the problems of goal-setting and the psychological effect of failing to meet them.

Jonathan Shaver