Are you suffering the what the heck effect?

I love reading and learning, not the least because you sometimes come across the most intriguing ideas. The what the heck effect is one such novel discovery of recent times.

What is the what the heck effect? And why might you be suffering it? Let me answer those questions in turn.

The ‘What the heck?’ effect is a term coined by social psychologist Roy Baumeister, currently professor at Florida State University and also co-author of a book called ‘Willpower: Rediscovering the greatest human strength.’ In summary, it’s what often happens to us when we fail to enact our willpower in a given situation.

Applied in his research to over-eating, it goes like this. You (or I) decide this Christmas we won’t eat too many sweets, cos they’re bad for us. Only, on the weekend before the big day, an aunt insists you simply must have a piece of her famous Christmas cake and some shortbread. And then your kid gives you a box of your favourite chocolates as a present and offers to eat some with you. So you indulge – just this once. Then at lunch, you decide you simply can’t resist a slither of desert, and you gather it to your bowl.

It’s halfway eaten when – horror of horrors! – you remember you weren’t going to do this to yourself this year! You know sugar’s bad for you, and you made a choice to be better! And the darn sweet stuff’s in your mouth and tasting just so good…

That’s not the what the heck effect. That’s the consequence of mindless behaviour. It’s so easy to fall into. But it’s also the trigger point for the what the heck effect kicking in.

In the moment I just described, though we’re not usually conscious of it, we have a few choices. We can acknowledge we’ve fallen from our own good graces, put ourselves back together and start our good intention over. Or, we can slide down the slippery slope to somewhere else.

Most of us fall for the latter. Overcome with embarrassment at our not being able to control ourselves, we subconsciously take a turn towards shame and decide we’re useless, undisciplined and worthless creatures. Having miserably decided we’re such little value, we conclude it doesn’t really matter what happens to us anyway (we probably deserve it), and put the rest of the sweet into our mouths. Before going back for more…

Welcome to the what the heck effect. The idea that, since you’ve fallen, a little bit more doesn’t signify. It can roll on for days. Or weeks. Or months. Even years, in bad cases. And it doesn’t end until you turn yourself around and blow the whistle. It’s not limited to those with an eating challenge, either. We all have an Achilles heel and a self-sabotage mechanism. Maybe yours is alcohol. Social media. Something sexual. Or losing your temper. Perhaps you just withdraw from people.

Many of us struggle with our weaknesses at this time of year. Perhaps it’s brought on by acute loneliness – one in four Australians suffer this, according to a survey last year. It could alternatively be stress, or simply physical exhaustion from trying to do too much. There’s a myriad of reasons which increase the likelihood of us falling this way. Overlay any personal struggle with some challenging ‘opportunities’ and it’s only too easy to slide into behaviour you’d rather avoid. In the context, it’s probably impressive that more of us aren’t wrestling with our own what the heck challenges.

I’m not telling you all this to make you more depressed or guilty. Instead, it’s an opportunity for you to ask yourself the question in the title and break it’s power. Only having faced – and named – your demon can you beat it. What’s your personal nemesis? What triggers it? What good living does it provoke you to give up? Who in your world will stand with you against it? (If no one else comes to mind, I will.)

If you’ve been taken down recently by the what the heck effect, add my encouragement to yours and get back on your feet. You can do it. So can I. Let’s together get back to our better selves, and healthier (and happier!) living.