What The Heck Effect… Why You Binge

What the heck is going on? So, tell me if you’ve had this experience before. It’s a Friday night and you’re sitting down to watch the next episode of Black Mirror. I know, I’m a little late to hop on this bandwagon but at least I made it. And you grab a handful of dark chocolate chips to snack on during the episode because they’re not the unhealthiest snack. And part way through the episode you realize your chocolate chips are gone and are still a little hungry. You could wait until next morning’s breakfast, but you’ve had a stressful week and deserve another serving. So, you grab another handful to snack on for the remainder of the episode. As the episode concludes, you realize the handful of chocolate chips turned into a bag of chocolate chips and the regret sets in. You feel ashamed by your indulgence and almost hopeless about losing willpower like that. You say to yourself, what the heck? I already screwed up my dietary promise to myself, let’s get another bag and start episode two! But wait, what? Why are you now compounding your problem’s effects? Shouldn’t you be doing the exact opposite? What the heck is the what the heck effect and how can I stop myself from these guilty binges? I have to say this didn’t really happen to me, but it was a relatable story that’ll allow me to detail the three strategies I use to prevent situations like these from happening. So, let’s get into it!

What The Heck Effect

This phenomenon is known as the “What-The-Heck-Effect”. The exact terminology uses the double hockey stick method of spelling but hey, this is a kid-friendly channel and I’m a kid-friendly guy. In the most appropriate way an adult male can say they’re a kid-friendly guy in 2021… Anyways, it was coined by dieting researchers Janet Polivy and Peter Herman who identified a cycle in people of indulgence and regret, followed by more indulgence and more regret. This is also known as counterregulatory behavior which is a tendency for a person to indulge more after having recently indulged which compounds the problem.

This primarily happens because of how hard people can be on themselves when they don’t meet their own expectations. Kelly McGonigal said in her book The Willpower Instinct, “Giving in makes you feel bad about yourself, which motivates you to do something to feel better. And what’s the cheapest, fastest strategy for feeling better? Often the very thing you feel bad about…” It’s not necessarily that indulging causes relapses, but the guilt that leads to a subsequent indulgence. So, this begs the question, how can we prevent the what the heck effect and stop binging?

How To Prevent It

Pause and Raise Awareness

Let’s start with pausing after the initial indulgence to gain awareness and understanding. The goal is that by knowing the What The Heck Effect, you can recognize how this psychology works and prevent it from occurring. To further demonstrate this effect, a neat study was published in the journal Appetite in 2010 testing this effect. They first provided participants with slices of pizza that the participants either perceived as smaller or larger than a typical slice of pizza. After the participants ate the pizza, they were provided three plates filled with cookies to eat at their leisure. And what they found was that the participants that were currently dieting and received a slice of pizza perceived as larger ended up eating the most cookies by far. Wait, what? The participants most concerned with their diet, who already ate a slice of pizza perceived as large ended up eating the most cookies? What the heck? Exactly.

It turns out that all participants were provided the exact same size of pizza slice and it was merely their perception of indulgence that triggered the subsequent indulgence in cookies. Now it’d be nice if they did some sort of follow-up experiment where participants were allowed a period after the pizza to pause, understand the effect, and accept the previous behavior as admissible. This could’ve allowed the participants to gain a better understanding of their emotions and react in a more self-compassionate form. Other studies less fun than eating pizza and cookies have found that those accepting of occasional poor behavior are less likely to binge in the future. So, after an indulgence, take some time to be aware of the situation and be more compassionate to yourself. And get back on the bandwagon as soon as possible.

Prioritize Longterm Goals

Next let’s discuss prioritizing long-term goals. Although my examples so far have been diet related, this effect can play out in many areas of our life. For example, let’s say you’re shopping for a new car, and you have a budget you want to keep. If you find yourself committing to a car that’s above your budget, you can have the same what the heck effect, and realize that you’re already blowing your budget so you might as well get the full featured model. But, if you’re already going over budget, why would you want to dig yourself into an even deeper hole? You should have the opposite reaction. Now that I’ve gone over budget, I should probably make more money conscious decisions moving forward. Instead of having this emotional response, step back and look at the long-term goal. Would this money be better used to save for a house? What about retirement or furthering your education? When you step back and see the bigger picture and your long-term goals, it can make the small emotional decisions easier to reconcile.

Rely on Identity Change

And the last strategy I’ll mention is relying on identity change to prevent binges in the first place. Now this is easier said than done as identity change takes a while but once you have an identity that you live by and are recognized for, it’s out of character to not embody that. For example, my identity is partly built around being fit and in-shape. If I skip too many workouts, I’m no longer behaving as I and everyone else expects. That pressure from the outside to workout, combined with my inner identity as a fit person make it difficult for me to skip a workout. Because internally I’m telling myself I want to workout because that’s who I am rather than I have to workout because it’s who I want to be. Now embodying an identity that doesn’t skip workouts, or binge eat, or splurge on expenses takes times. I’d check out my habit series on 3 Steps To Build A Habit Today and other post 2 Steps To Maintain A Habit Forever. The five strategies mentioned in those posts can help bring awareness to your situation and put plans in place to stay on track. All these habit-forming techniques will shape your long-term identity. And that long-term identity will be accepting and resilient to occasional emotional indulgences.

Final Thoughts

The What The Heck Effect happens to all of us in many different forms. We have an occasional indulgence, feel bad about ourselves, and then give up and say we might as well indulge more as we’ve already ruined our healthy habit. But the reasonable and logical reaction would be that if an indulgence occurred, you should respond with a swifter, healthier action to make up for it. So, by understanding this effect, you’ll have a better understanding of how your psychology can trick you into binging. And the next time you have an indulgence, take a few minutes to gain awareness of the situation and compassion for yourself. Think about your long-term goals and continue your healthy habits until you can rely on true identity change to prevent this from happening in the future. Because to me, this sounds like a life that’s both healthier and happier.

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Hey, I am Brandon Zerbe

Welcome to myHealthSciences! My goal has always been to increase quality-of-life with healthy habits that are sustainable, efficient, and effective. I do this by covering topics like Fitness, Nutrition, Sleep, Cognition, Finance and Minimalism. You can read more about me here.


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