Everyday Systems: Podcast : Episode 41

The "What the Hell" Effect and Negative Qualification.

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Hi, this is Reinhard from everyday systems.com.

I'm in the middle of reading a book called the Willpower Instinct by Kelly McGonigal, based on a psychology class she teaches at Stanford (which I'd like to thank walkerlori on the bulletin board for bringing to my attention).

There's a lot in this book that is interesting and relevant for everyday systems, including a bunch of welcome scientific evidence for a some of my inspired hunches. But today I'm going to limit myself to discussing a psychological phenomenon she describes, called  the "what the hell" effect (and yes, this is apparently what it's called in the scientific literature). In particular, I'm going to talk about its relevance for practitioners of everyday systems.

In a nutshell "the what the hell effect" works like this:

Say you're doing some virtuous thing, like dieting. And you mess up. Perhaps in some minor way. But still, you fail. You weren't supposed to have a cookie according to the rules of your diet, but you did.

What people often then do is they say to themselves "I ate the cookie -- what the hell,  I might as well go all the way and eat the whole bag. I failed, I might as well Fail with a Capital F. At least the cookies will be some consolation for my being such a failure."

Now this probably sounds familiar to you even if you aren't practicing an everyday system, people do this all the time. But I think because of  the everyday systems emphasis on clarity and simplicity -- the binary nature of success and failure, that there are no degrees, right? red is red, green is green --- that everyday systems practitioners might seem at first glance to be particularly vulnerable to the "what the hell effect."

Let me give a couple of examples to make this clear:

Let's say you're on the no-s diet -- and you mess up, at breakfast. You couldn't resist the pop tart.  It's 9 AM and already it's a red day.

So you say to yourself, I already messed up so I might as well go bananas. There's no amount of restraint that's going to turn this into a green day now. And I can't make my habit cal square any redder by having another pop tart, so I'll just go ahead and finish off the whole box. And then keep stuffing myself for the rest of the day. What the hell.

Or to take a more serious example, because ultimately one box of pop tarts isn't going to ruin your life, or even one day of overeating, let's say you're practicing glass ceiling and let's say you break through your 2 drink daily maximum with a third drink. Red is red. Since you had that third drink, you might as well make it 4 drinks. Or 6. Or 10. Or so many you lose count. Red is red. What the hell.

Now that's a potentially fatal "what the hell effect."

So how do you deal with this? How do you preserve the clarity and simplicity of everyday systems that are so crucial for their habit building power without taking the risk that "what the hell effect" will turn minor infractions into major disasters?

There's an easy solution, I think, that I've been practicing myself for years without realizing just how useful it's been:

The solution is to resolve confess my reds. Not just to mark them as red in the HabitCal, but to publicly qualify or describe the degree of any failures on the bulletin board.

If "confess" sounds too morally-charged and self-flagelating, call it "negative qualification." You have to qualify the negatives, as opposed to just quantifying in the HabitCal.

Or, in HabitCal-speak and riffing off the idea of "food journaling," call it "red journaling." Sounds a little marxist… but what the hell, my last name is Engels. 

So for example, if you're using the HabitCal to quantity your compliance with the rules, ticking off successes and failures, resolve to also qualify any failures, any reds, say by describing them in your check-in thread on the everyday systems bulletin board. That's how you do this. Green success you don't have to say anything about. But when you get a red you now have to qualify that red, you have to describe the details of what happened and to what degree it was a red.

There are two reasons why making a resolution like this serves as an effective disincentive for failure:

1. it adds an additional cost for failures of any kind: extra work. if you succeed you'd don't have to write anything. so unless you love typing and public display of weakness you'll think twice about taking a red next time. 

2. and this is far more important and it's the part that's relevant to the "what the hell effect:" the greater the degree of your failure, the more, I don't want to say embarrassing because embarrassment is kind of uncool today, but uncomfortable it is to have to publicly describe it. This is particularly effective with glass ceiling, where it's also particularly important: each extra drink has a cost, an extra drink to confess. I have an increasing disincentive to drink each additional drink. 4 is worse than 3. 5 is worse than 4. etc. There's never a point at which I can say "what he hell" with impunity. It's like there's a second ceiling above the glass ceiling, and a ceiling above that -- an infinity of ceilings, theoretically, though I hope to never have to probe that deeply. You can also look at it as a kind of airbag to keep a willpower fender bender from becoming a total wreck. Glass ceiling -- with "air bag." Or no-s diet, with air bag. 

Besides these very valuable disincentives, negative qualification also gives you useful data about why you failed. You might see over several months particular circumstances that tend to trigger failures that need special attention.

For me, for example, it's book club. I tend to break glass ceiling at my book club. It sounds idiotic. And I probably wouldn't have even noticed this correlation if I hadn't been diligently fessing it up on the bulletin board, but there you go. It's a fact, and I now see it plainly before me, and I can take steps to address that particular circumstance.

Now some people like to qualify everything. Greens, reds, yellows, it all goes in their daily check-in. But unless you really enjoy this process -- and some people do -- , I don't recommend it long term. Tracking in such detail is expensive. It takes time that you could and probably should use for other things. And in a sense, it's even counterproductive:  because the disincentive power of tracking in this detail is diminished if you have to do it anyway even if you don't fail. And it also drowns the information you most care about -- when and why and to what degree you failed -- in a sea of relatively unimportant detail.

Now one important part about this negative qualification is that you keep it cool and descriptive. Don't start wallowing in guilt. That's just not productive. State the facts, face them, and move on.

If you start beating yourself up, you're only going to feel like you've made things even somehow and don't have to fix your future behavior, which is what really matters. It's counter intuitive, but by beating yourself up, you're letting yourself off the hook in a more important way. You think I paid for this slip-up by punishing myself, now I no longer owe a debt, which I should really pay with good behavior going forward.

Dr. McGonigal in the Willpower book talks a lot about the importance of self-forgiveness, and although that particular term does't resonate so much with me, -- I keep having this vision of Dr. Mengele sitting in the jungle forgiving himself --  I do agree that beating oneself up for dietary infractions and the like tends not to be productive. 

Another great thing about this "negative qualification" technique is not just how effective it is, but how cheap it is to implement. If you're good you don' t have to do anything extra at all. Only if you're bad is it expensive -- and you get a lot of disincentive power for that expense.

You could even extend it to help with "S-days gone wild," a perennial concern. S days are always yellow. But if you aren't happy with them, qualify. You still can't fail on S-days, but you can still complain about them, systematically, and collect data on them that might help to make them less problematic.

Before I sign off for today, I'd like to point out one way in which everyday systems and the HabitCal, even without negative qualification,  ARE helpful in combating the "what the hell" effect:

You have to zoom out a bit, beyond a single day, to see it.

Without the HabitCal, you might do a few days on a diet, get a streak of successes, and then fail, and  think: I broke my streak, what the hell, I might as well give up, or go on a two week bender.

With the HabitCal, you have visual incentive to get right back on track the next day. Yeah, you got a red square.  But the next day you can get green. And each additional day of failure has a chromatic cost, another red square.

And if you use both, both the HabitCal and negative qualification, you've got strong armor indeed against this amusingly named but quite dangerous effect, on both the intra day and multi day levels.

That's it. Thanks for listening.

By Reinhard Engels

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