The What-the-hell effect



30, Oct 2016

‘What-the-hell’ effect is witnessed in most individuals trying to get rid of a bad habit. Most research has focused on dieters and revealed how this effect can counter progress. Experiments reveal that dieters who have succumbed to the first temptation are more likely to choose to indulge themselves further. This effect has an important role in ethics, where it is related to the Slippery Slope Argument.

What triggers the steep slip from some of your goals?

Getting rid of a bad habit requires an exertion of will power. The best of planning and preparedness encounter obstacles constantly during implementation.

  • Bars, festive seasons, facebook notifications are among the external distractions that happen to come along uninvited and when they arrive, show no sign of leaving. Our self-motivation and preparedness begin to weaken and then sway dangerously. Internal cravings in the face of temptation ensure that we stay on the fence.
  • Finally we decide, “Keep Calm and drink just half a peg” or “Keep Calm and eat just the teeniest slice of cake” or “Keep Calm and Open Facebook for just 3 minutes and 59 seconds”. The point is we’ve remembered some variant of Oscar Wilde’s quote - The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.And so we make the first slip.
  • Often, we think it is not a big deal and proceed to yield. That is when the “what-the-hell effect” strikes and before we know it we are speeding down the ravine.When we look up, we get the feeling we’re further from the goal than when we started.

Why should it matter?

The general tendency is to plan for how to avoid obstacles en route to freedom from a bad habit. Without understanding how important it is to be flexible about our will power, we plough on and on.This unpreparedness to deal with the first obstacle makes us more prone to failure and frustration.

  • What-the-hell effect forms a bridge between rational thinking and irrational action. After all its only three minutes and 59 seconds, we think. That is in no terms a “Facebook addict”. Or just one bite of the sumptuous burger is not going to offset the abstinence of a whole week. So we tentatively taste temptation and before we know it the whole day has been spent on Facebook or eating burgers.
  • It occurs so fast that we interpret what-the-hell effect as a single steep path to rock bottom but it is a sequence of choices triggered in rapid succession the moment we respond to the first failure by thinking “What the hell”.

The bottom line is if we could understand how what-the-hell effect works; we can learn how to deal with it.

When do we experience the what-the-hell effect?

  • Now there is a lot more media coverage on eating disorders. These disorders need medical help to be handled and should in no way be simplified to what-the-hell effect.
  • The what-the-hell effect is definitely not a medical term and while handling it effectively might solve some problems, and handling it is more of a psychological hack which has not been tried and tested across situations.

Where else does this effect manifest?

Sometimes, on our own, we give generous tips to a poor government employee who is only doing this duty.“What the hell, it is only a little money that this poor guy wants”, we convince ourselves even of the morality of the small bribe. Yet, we frown when we come to know of a bureaucrat who has amassed a fortune taking kick-backs. Do you see the slippery slope on which the society has travelled collectively
  • If whistling, honking and catcalling at women is tolerated in a society, it only triggers that terrible fall down the slope where sexual assaults and rapes become commonplace.
  • This argument has an important application in the debate on Euthanasia (mercy killing). Those who are against voluntary euthanasia (patient opts to die) worry that if voluntary euthanasia were to be made legal, it would not be long before involuntary euthanasia (patient does not opt to die; someone else takes the call) would start to happen. Some even say that the slippery slope would lead to even murders being accepted by the society. The supporters of Euthanasia contend that the law can provide safeguards against slippery-slope effects.
  • An oft-cited example is that of the Nazi Germany’s T4 program. Under the program certain German physicians were authorized to sign off patients "deemed incurably sick, after most critical medical examination" and then administer to them a "mercy death". In October 1939 Adolf Hitler signed a "euthanasia decree" after backdating it to 1 September 1939.

    • Leo Alexander, a key medical advisor during the Nuremberg Trials of the captured Nazi officials, stated that the origins of the Nazi programs could be traced back to "small beginnings", and presented a slippery slope argument.

    Who else demonstrated what-the-hell effect among dieters?

    Why not enjoy myself "

    How can we deal with it effectively?

    Understanding that this effect is experienced by most people is said to be a major step forward.

    • Set the right goal. We need to take feasibility and time into consideration. Specific short-term goals that are easier to obtain and exert but not over-exert the will power are important. Succeeding in these goals gives a sense of accomplishment and motivates one.
    • Record the mistakes and diversions. These should be done for a positive purpose – identify the mistakes and see what can be done about them. When a pattern that indicates progress sets in, it is easier to accept the mistakes and handle them.
    • Procrastination before taking the next bite or the indulging in the next splurge can trick one onto feeling “too lazy” to make more mistakes and divert further from the goal.
    • Celebrate the milestones crossed. Alcoholics Anonymous has implemented this with great success. They rephrase the goal of limiting drinking to celebrating days when members did not drink. This turns the purpose from limiting to building.
    • One habit at a time allows focus and perseverance and patience pay off.

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    Tags | ‘What-the-hell’ effect ethics