5 Traps That Derail Our Progress Without Us Even Realizing It

The moviegoers all agreed – the popcorn smelled delicious!

158 participants had been invited to attend a post-lunch matinee at a local movie theater and give their rating of it on a 5-star scale. To help make the movie more enjoyable, psychologist Brian Wansick gave them all free popcorn!

Each of them were either given large buckets of popcorn (8.4oz) or given medium-sized buckets (4.2oz). What the participants did not know, however, was that half of them were about to receive popcorn that was really 14 days old! And Dr. Wansick did not actually care what they rated the movie, he wanted to know how much of the old, stale popcorn the participants would eat. [1]

The participants with the old popcorn noticed its fowl taste, calling it “terrible” and “stale”. But that did not stop them from eating it! The participants that were given the large buckets of stale popcorn ate 34% more than those who were given the medium-sized containers of fresh popcorn!

Despite the fact that these people had just eaten lunch – so they clearly were not starving – and hated the taste of the popcorn, they still scarfed it down!

And it gets worse. Both the fresh and stale groups who received the large buckets of popcorn believed that they had note eaten any more popcorn than the groups who received the medium-sized bags – even though they ate over 1/3rd of a bag more!

This is just one of many examples of how we indulge without realizing it. It does not matter how strong your willpower is if you don’t even know that you are indulging!

So I have listed 5 ways that we indulge, cheat and binge without even realizing it – and how we can avoid them!

1.    Eating while watching TV or a movie 

Popcorn is not the only indulgence we moviegoers indulge in. No matter what your favorite snack is, research shows that you will spend more time eating and eat more of it if you are tuned into a screen.

Surprisingly, research found that the more engaged you are with whatever it is that you are watching, the more you will eat! So it is not about adding food to enhance the experience, it is simply about not realizing how much of it you are eating! [2]

Avoiding this trap is simple – manage your portions. We can learn from the moviegoers in the first experiment who received the medium bag of popcorn. Despite eating 1/3rd of a bag less than the large bucket group, they did not report any less enjoyment of the movie or the popcorn. Understand that you will be likely to forget about how much you are eating, so make sure you set yourself up to enjoy without going overboard. 

2.    Who you eat with        

Your friends have a big influence on you willpower – but what about your acquaintances? Dr. Wansick conducted another study that tested 83 undergraduates on whether or not their food choices would be impacted by an overweight person indulging in their presence

He found that the students who were in the presence of the actress who was wearing a fat suit ate 31.6% more pasta and 43.5% less salad than those who were with the same actress without the fat suit! [3]

So how do we avoid this trap? By shunning our friends and acquaintances if they happen to be overweight? Of course not. All it takes is recognizing the situation. We are naturally social beings and judge our own behavior based on what we see others doing.

So understand that subconsciously you are likely to indulge if you see others around you indulging. Then simply be mindful about what you are eating and how much of it you eat. Just being self-aware is enough to keep your indulgence to a minimum. 

3.    Moral licensing 

One of the worst traps that we can fall into is when we credit our achievements as virtuous. Saying that we have been “good” on our diets, exercise programs, or any other goal allows us to justify being “bad”. This is a phenomenon known as Moral Licensing and it can actually makes us feel good about our decision to indulge!

Most of the time, we don’t even need to have a direct link between this good and bad behavior. People who put extra time in at the office will use that as justification for indulging in unhealthy food. People who stick to their diets will use that to justify a major credit card purchase. In one study, all it took was getting people to check a box next to a charity they liked for them to increase their chances of splurging at the mall! [4]  

To avoid this trap, stop crediting behaviors as “good” or “bad”. There is nothing moral about eating healthy or going to the gym – plenty of immoral people do! Instead, credit progress toward your goals as evidence of your commitment to being a healthier, more productive, or more charitable person. Rather than as saintly behavior that justifies being “bad”.

4.    The “What-the-Hell Effect

When testing the willpower of dieters, researchers pulled together 2 sets of people – dieters and non-dieters – who were all 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 given offered 2 milkshakes – enough to make anyone completely full and the 3rd group was given nothing and left hungry. [5] 

The researchers then offered different types of cookies to the subjects. Each subject was supposed to rank each type cookie, and was invited to eat as many as they’d like. The subjects thought that the experiment was based on the cookie 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 hadn’t drank the milkshakes ate the most, 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 were left hungry! 

This is a phenomenon known as the “What-the-Hell” effect. By drinking the 2 milkshakes, the dieters had surpassed their calorie goals and blown their diets for the day. So, since their diets are blown, "what-the-hell', they may as well enjoy themselves and eat whatever they want! Then virtuous eating can resume tomorrow.

The best way to avoid this trap seems counter-productive to everyone who falls into it – forgive yourself. Avoid the tendency to feel guilty about slipping up on your diet, exercise program or any other goal. This will only lead you to feeling worse and actually lower your willpower. [6

Whenever I teach this I always hear, “but how can I improve if I don’t feel guilty about indulging?

If that’s your mindset, think about it this way – if your best friend had a slip up working towards their goal, would you make them feel guilty about it? Would you scold them? Would you say that the best strategy would be to continue the binge until tomorrow?

My guess is no. You would try to understand why they slipped up and get them to learn from it. That is how we make the most of our mistakes, by learning from them. Not by scolding ourselves, feeling guilty and indulging. 

5.    The confirmation bias 

The final trap is one that I fall into all too often – the confirmation bias. The confirmation bias is the tendency we have to look for any information possible to justify our bad decisions. [7]

For example, I am currently on a very rigorous physical training schedule to compete at the elite level in the Spartan Race. One of the hardest challenges I have is deciding how much rest my body needs. 

Most scientific studies indicate that I need over 8 hours of sleep every night and at least 1 rest day per week to help my muscles recover. However, athletic heroes of mine like Kobe Bryant and Arnold Schwarzenegger are notorious for their insane work ethics and lack of rest. 

Since there is no hard answer, I can use either side to justify how I am feeling that day. If I want to take it easy, I can use the studies that emphasize rest to justify doing so. If I have a lot of energy, I can use Kobe or Arnold as proof that great athletes really don’t need as much rest as they say.  

Google something and chances are you will find justification for just about anything decision you want to make. If you want to skip your diet for the day, you will find an article that claims having a “cheat day” is good for you. If you are bored with a new productivity method you have been trying, you will find an article that says it doesn’t work anyway. If you want to skip saving your money and spend it on a vacation instead, you will find an article that says that those who save their money regret the things they didn’t do earlier in life. 

Not that any of these articles are wrong – there is truth to every one of them! But the problem is when we use this information as justification to throw our plans out the window.

To avoid the confirmation bias we need to recognize that we are susceptible to it. Even though we may think that we are being smart by looking for information, we are really just looking for something, anything, to justify what we want.

This is human, but it is also dangerous. If you catch yourself looking for information in this way, you must force yourself to be objective. Do not just look at 1 article, look at 3. Do not just believe some blog that doesn't cite information, find a credible source. Then ask yourself if the information you find is really worth throwing away your plans.


It is hard to summon the willpower we need to stay on the path to reaching goals. It is infinitely harder when we do not even realize that are being taken off track. The 5 traps that I have listed above all have the power to derail even our best-laid plans without us even realizing it! 

The best way to beat them is to simply recognize that they are happening. Once you realize that the popcorn is 14-days old it is not so hard to resist it. Once you recognize that your portion of food only seems appropriate because the other person is indulging, it becomes much easier to stick to a normal-sized helping. The same can be said for calling our behaviors “good”, recognizing that feeling guilty won’t help us, or justifying bad decisions with information that we wanted to find.

Whenever you recognize that one of these things are happening, simply take a moment to pause. Be mindful of the trap and the consequences that it can have. Increasing your self-awareness will make it much easier to stay on track and achieve your goals!


  1. Wansink, B. (2006). Mindless eating: Why we eat more than we think. New York: Bantam Books.
  2. Temple, J. (2007). Television watching increases motivated responding for food and energy intake in children. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 85(2), 355-361.
  3. Shimizu, M., Hancock, K., & Wansink, B. (2014). In good company. The effect of an eating companion's appearance on food intake. Appetite, 83, 263-268.
  4. Merritt, A., Effron, D., & Monin, B. (2010). Moral Self-Licensing: When Being Good Frees Us to Be Bad. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 344-357.
  5. Polivy, J., Herman, C., & Deo, R. (2010). Getting A Bigger Slice Of The Pie. Effects On Eating And Emotion In Restrained And Unrestrained Eaters. Appetite, 426-430.
  6. Adams, C., & Leary, M. (2007). Promoting Self–Compassionate Attitudes Toward Eating Among Restrictive And Guilty Eaters. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 1120-1144
  7. Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2013). Decisive. New York: Crown Business.