THE ‘WHAT THE HELL’ EFFECT AND HOW IT EXPLAINS WHY SO MANY DIETS FAIL
Dr Raj Persaud Consultant Psychiatrist
A new book entitled ‘Willpower’ by psychologist Roy Baumeister and science writer John Tierney (published by Allen Lane) devotes a whole chapter to the problem of dieting. The book is about the psychology of willpower and aims to explain recent research in this area, but also goes on to give practical tips, based on science, as to how to improve our resolve and motivation.
The chapter on dieting is particularly interesting and devotes much space to what the authors refer to as the ‘what-the-hell’ effect.
This is an effect observed in numerous experiments. The experiment tends to run something like this. You take two groups – one group is on a diet and the other isn’t. You give both groups a large portion of food, perhaps an unexpectedly large one. Then you give them a choice as to whether to continue eating, or not, when exposed to further tempting foods.
The intriguing finding is that those not on a diet seem to be better able to resist further temptation after they’ve eaten something. Those on a diet seemed most prone to continue gorging themselves.
One psychological explanation for this is once the dieters had ‘blown’ their diet, they seemed to be saying to themselves ‘what the hell’ we’ve blown it now, so the day is a write off, so we might as well enjoy ourselves and really go for it.
So one theory is that the restraint or the effort dieters put in to keeping on the straight and narrow puts them on a terrific strain, and the relaxation they feel from falling off the wagon leads them to want to relish this feeling of freedom for as long as possible. The take home message from this theory is that as all attempts to lose weight involve some kind of restraint, pick targets in the form of final goals plus weekly weight loss targets that are realistic. Realism here refers to what is sustainable without too much strain.
The reason it’s vital to avoid the ‘what the hell’ effect is the authors of ‘Willpower’ are suggesting that one of the mysterious ways poorly thought through diets seem to cause their adherents to gain weight in the long run (the authors use Oprah Winfrey as a case in point) is the tendency to fall off the wagon regularly and then start binging. The point here is that its these dangerous binges that cause the real damage.
If dieting leads you to binge then diets will cause you to gain weight in the longer term. If you are going to lose weight in the longer term, its crucial to avoid any regime which is such a strain as to cause binges.
It’s almost more important not to binge, than it is to diet, if you read between the lines of what Bauminster and Tierney are saying.
Another theory about what is going on here, about why dieters are more prone to binge than those not on a diet, relates to monitoring. We’ve already mentioned in previous articles that monitoring or tracking progress is crucial to any attempts to achieve any difficult goal. The reason we don’t like to monitor or track our progress is no one likes the bad news of finding out things have not been going well on the resolve front. But if we don’t get feedback on how we’re doing, we can’t adjust performance to tackle where we are going wrong. Monitoring or tracking via weighing is therefore essential.
It is notable, by the way, that Bauminster and Tierney suggest much more frequent weighing ie daily or almost daily is more motivational than weekly weighing, if you’re trying to lose weight. This is in direct contradiction to the standard advice issued by nutritionists and dieticians. Their advice is to restrict yourself to weekly weighing.
Bauminster and Tierney are backing daily weighing or more frequent weighing because they are placing great store on tracking and monitoring. They believe that many who specialise in weight-loss are neglecting the motivational power of daily weighing.
It looks as though the ‘what the hell’ effect may work through the abandoning of monitoring that accompanies a binge. Most of the time those of us who are trying to lose weight are monitoring and tracking what we eat and our weight. But come a binge, we feel it’s ok to not just abandon all targets for the day, but we also abandon all attempts to monitor. Bauminster and Tierney cite research which shows that following a binge, it’s those on a diet who are less able to recall exactly how much they eat, compared to those not on a diet.
The take home message is stick to a weight loss plan which doesn’t lead to binges. It’s the binges which are truly dangerous when it comes to trying to lose weight. If you don’t binge, you will succeed in the long run.