The What-the-Hell Effect - How One Slip Can Ruin Everything

Stanley is currently undergoing one of the toughest challenges to his willpower imaginable – he is on a diet. 

He has been struggling to get his weight under control for years - always making progress, but never reaching his ultimate goal. But this time, Stanley is determined to not let that happen again. This time he is going to make it through the toughest days and reach his goal.

Then he gets 3 weeks into his diet and the temptations start rising. He feels himself craving junk food, lavish meals and sweet desserts. Ultimately, he is tempted to slip off of his virtuous path and back into the vices of his pre-diet life.

Then one day, Stanley gets invited to a party with friends. Almost every food that is served is “off-limits” by the rules of Stanley’s diet. But, rather than being rude, Stanley decides to let himself take a break this one time for the sake of friendship and courtesy.

So he indulges in some of the rich appetizers, some wine, and fettuccine Alfredo for dinner.

But, it doesn’t end there for Stanley. 

After giving in to these indulgences, Stanley decides that his diet for the day has officially been ruined. And since it’s ruined anyway, what the hell, he may as well enjoy himself!

So bring on more fettuccine, more wine and, what the hell, why not an extra-large helping of dessert!

Virtue, he decides, can resume tomorrow. Tonight he is going to binge! 

This binge, of course, leads to an increase in weight, a loss in progress and ultimately a feeling of defeat as - once again - Stanley is unable to reach his weight-loss goals.


If Stanley’s story sounds familiar, don’t worry. It happens to all of us. Whether it is giving up on our diets, giving up on our exercise program or giving up on any of our goals, when we start to slip, we start justifying going completely overboard.

But why? 

To find out, researchers created a similar situation to Stanley’s to see why dieters would turn one slip into an all-out binge. [1

They invited a set of dieters and a set of non-dieters into the laboratory ensuring both sets arrived hungry. Then they divided each set into 3 groups.

1 group was offered a milkshake to help fill up their hungry bellies. Another group was offered 2 milkshakes – enough to make anyone completely full – and the 3rd group was given nothing.

After the milkshakes, the researchers then told the participants that they would be taking part in a taste test of various cookies. Each subject was supposed to rank each type cookie, and was allowed to eat as many as they’d like.

The subjects thought that the experiment was focused on the ranking, but the researchers were really looking at how many cookies each group of people were eating. 

The non-dieters acted just as you’d imagine. Those who did not drink any milkshakes ate the most, those who had the 1 milkshake ate fewer and those that drank the 2 milkshakes ate the least.

However, the dieters did the exact opposite! The subjects that drank the 2 milkshakes actually ate more cookies than the ones who didn’t have any milkshakes at all!

Despite the fact that they were full, despite the fact that they admitted to feeling guilty about drinking the milkshakes, and despite the fact that they were supposed to be watching their calorie intake - they kept on eating those cookies.

These results have been tested and validated over and over by similar experiments. But why does this happen? 

Researchers have confirmed that the reason dieters behave in this manner is due to what they informally call the “What the Hell Effect”. 

The dieters that drank the 2 milkshakes had broken their daily calorie limits. At that point, they decided that their diet is officially ruined for the day, and “what the hell” if it’s already ruined, why not make this indulging day worth it by indulging even more?  

This logic is obviously flawed. And it ruins the day-in-day-out efforts put forth by countless dieters across the country. But it happens to all of us!

You tell yourself that you’re only going to have 1 drink, but if you take a 2nd, what the hell, why not have 3 or 4? 

You tell yourself that you’re going to the gym every morning, but if you skip it, what the hell, why not also help yourself to a slice of pizza at lunch too?

It doesn't matter what your goal is. If you break it for the day, you feel justified in breaking it even more! Because if the day is ruined, then you may as well have fun in doing so.

how to defeat the what-the-hell effect

This logic has the potential to derail even the best-laid plans. In one afternoon, you have the power to ruin all of your progress. So what can you do about it?

To try to avoid this trap, most people think that it will be best to make themselves feel guilty. "After all, if I feel guilty, then I will be motivated to stop indulging and feeling even more guilty!"

But this is actually why we turn to the what-the-hell effect in the first place. 

When we feel guilty about breaking our goal for the day - diet or otherwise - we seek out a way to feel better about ourselves. So, we justify an all-out binge in which we get to truly enjoy ourselves and forget about our guilt until the morning.

To avoid this fate, you must do just the opposite – forgive yourself.  

Researchers that ran similar experiments to create the "what-the-hell effect" found that test groups that were given instruction to forgive themselves after the first indulgence were far less likely to continue the binge. [2]


Because when we forgive ourselves, we are able to think more rationally about the situation.

We’re able to see it for what it is – one slip. Just like any other failure in life, it’s better to learn from it than to get down on yourself and think that you’re “no good”. 

Think about what you would tell your best friend if they were to make a mistake on their diet. Would you try to make them feel guilty about their slip up? Or tell them that the best thing to make up for the mistake is to keep on making it through an all out binge?

Of course not!

You would be there to support them. You would tell them to forgive themselves and understand that they are human and they are going to make mistakes. Then encourage them stay strong and stick to their diet from here on.

The people who learn to forgive themselves take their indulgence as a lesson on the journey to achieving their goals. Just like a future basketball star is not going to make every shot on his way to the NBA, we’re not going to be a model of perfection on our way to achieving our goals.


Having a minor setback on the path to achieving your goals is natural. We’re only human. Our natural response is to get down on ourselves, which only leads to more setbacks as we say, “what the hell, why not indulge even more?” 

To prevent these major setbacks, forgive yourself and learn from the failure. Even Michael Jordan admitted to failing over and over again in his career. But he learned from those failures and used them to guide his future success. So do not let yourself go overboard. Learn from your mistakes and see your goals through to the finish!

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  1. Polivy, Janet, C. Peter Herman, and Rajbir Deo. "Getting a Bigger Slice of the Pie. Effects on Eating and Emotion in Restrained and Unrestrained Eaters." Appetite 55.3 (2010): 426-30.
  2. Adams, Claire E., and Mark R. Leary. "Promoting Self–Compassionate Attitudes Toward Eating Among Restrictive and Guilty Eaters."Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology 26.10 (2007): 1120-144