Have you ever tried to stop or cut back on doing something, then slipped up just once, and then completely abandoned your goal?
Here’s an example: you’re trying to lose weight by eating healthy, lower-calorie meals, and you’re doing well for a while. Then, one day, you eat a donut, putting yourself over the daily calorie limit you set.
So, you say to yourself, “Well, I’ve already blown it for today, so I might as well have another donut.” Two donuts turns into a few, and today turns into a few days, and before you know it, you’re completely off-mission and feeling bad about yourself.
Motivation researchers Janet Polivy and Peter Herman coined a scientific-sounding term for the ability of slip-ups to trigger the wholesale abandonment of these restrictive types of goals: the “what the hell effect” (known hereafter as the “WTH Effect”).
For some, this is the most frustrating and worrisome phenomenon in the realm of goal achievement, whether it involves giving up smoking, drinking, excessive eating, TV watching, or any other behavior you'd like to reduce. You can be doing great one moment and in the next swing to the opposite pole of behavior.*
Researchers have figured out, for the most part, what causes the WTH Effect. Unfortunately, many of the same general strategies that we’ve discussed and recommended for goal achievement are part of the problem.
For instance, I previously explained why setting relatively easy-to-achieve interim goals can help to produce the sense of velocity that is key to your satisfaction and can help sustain your motivation. Also, why it’s critical to stay receptive to feedback about your progress.
While these strategies are sound when you’re pursuing an acquisitional goal (in which you’re trying to increase some quality or behavior), they tend to produce the opposite results when you’re pursuing an inhibitional goal (in which you're trying to reduce something).** Why is this?
For one thing, by their nature, inhibitional goals lead to extreme conclusions about yourself based on your performance. If you’re trying to lose weight by staying under a daily calorie limit, then you’ve already attained your goal in each and every moment until you eat the calorie that puts you over the top, at which point you perceive yourself as having failed.
Your feedback system takes you from being a complete success to an utter failure with one bite. Framing your goal this way has blinded you, at least temporarily, to the fact that eating the extra calorie does not preclude you from ever losing weight.
Contrast this situation with trying to achieve the same long-term goal by increasing a behavior, like eating a salad every day. There are shades of gray possible in your success: you could have a small salad along with your French fries, or a large salad by itself.
Either one can be considered some movement toward your goal. Furthermore, the worst-case scenario is that you don’t eat a salad today. In that case, sure, you failed, but that just means that you’ve stayed where you are, not necessarily that you’ve stepped backward.
A negative focus
A related factor is something that's an inherent (and obvious) problem with monitoring feedback loops when things aren’t going well: you learn that things aren’t going well.
Of course, that can negatively impact your mood and motivation and, in fact, studies have shown that the negative emotional impact of loss (like ruining your current success by eating the donut) exceeds the positive emotional impact of a similar gain (like eating the salad). This aversion to unappealing knowledge can lead people to stick their head in the sand a la the dreaded Ostrich Problem that I discussed previously.
But there's more to it, because you aren't just monitoring how well things are going in general. Whether you’re pursuing a goal of trying to do more or less of something, the feedback in question is whether you do that thing.
In the case of an inhibitional goal, that means your loop is scanning for you engaging in negative behavior; you screwing things up.
Studies have shown that focusing on your own negative behavior tends to produce anxiety, lower self-esteem, and hinder performance. It can actually lead to an increase in the behavior you’re trying to stop.
Conversely, the bits of positive behavior that drive your attractive feedback loops tend to give you little boosts of self-esteem, feelings of accomplishment, and the motivation to keep going.
The third major contributor to the WTH Effect is setting intermediate goals that are too short-term. Much of the research on this topic has been done in the area of dieting, and it so happens that when people watch what they eat, they generally do so by setting very short-term intermediate goals. For many people, that means limiting their daily caloric intake in order to meet their weight loss goal.
When you're pursuing an acquisitional goal, it's great to set short-term goals, especially if they're relatively easy to achieve, because you can feel better about yourself and stoke your motivational fire that way.
But with an inhibitional goal, frequently scanning for (negative) feedback works against you. You're more likely to find a failure, and as those add up, so do their adverse consequences, like impaired self-esteem and motivation, which can sabotage your long-term success.
What you can do
So, if you're trying to cut back on something and want to maintain motivation, succeed, and feel good at the same time, then here's what you need to keep in mind:
- If you want to change a behavior, it's good to have intermediate goals, and acquisitional ones are better than inhibitional ones.
- If your goal isn't acquisitional by nature (say, eating a salad every day), then try to reframe it in an acquisitional way. Researchers Winona Cochran and Abraham Tesser offer a suggestion for the calorie-counting dieter: rather than setting a calorie limit, try rewarding yourself for every meal less than 1,000 calories (or whatever).
Or, rather than trying to stop swearing, rewarding yourself for going a certain number of days without doing it. This shift, from limiting yourself to amassing something, is a subtle but important one.
- For acquisitional goals, the more short-term your intermediate goals and the more frequent the feedback, the better your performance is likely to be; for inhibitional goals, the opposite is true.
So, for instance, if you must count calories, set a weekly or monthly limit instead of a daily one, so that a slip-up can be compensated for within the same period of time that you're monitoring.
This will improve your odds of achieving your intermediate goal and better enable you to keep your eyes on the bigger picture, so you don't let one indiscretion bring your whole motivational structure crashing down around your ears.
* This ambivalence usually reflects the competing interests of your short- and long-term well-being, so reconciling the two by tending to the parts of you that call for short-term comfort or relief is one way to go. A complementary approach is to optimize your goal-setting strategies for the type of goal you're pursuing.
** Your attractive feedback loops are probably acquisitional in nature, and your aversive feedback loops, by which you’re trying to distance yourself from something you don’t want, are probably inhibitional.
If you haven't been able to follow the whole series, check out our roundup: How to Achieve Your Goals: The Top Eight Things You Need to Know