What the hell

I learned about an interesting bias recently. The most official name seems to be "lapse-activated causal patterns", but the more fun name is the "what the hell" effect. It's when you have a particular system you're trying to stick to, for example a low-calorie diet. If you have a moment of weakness and eat a donut, that shouldn't affect your decisions about subsequent donuts; the donut is a sunk cost and the best thing you can do is move on. However, what we tend to do instead is think "ah, what the hell, since I'm already failing at my diet..." and blitz through the entire donut box.

I think there are two interesting ways to look at this. The first one is in terms of identity: deep down your goal wasn't "eat as few donuts as possible", it was "be the kind of person who doesn't eat donuts". One slip-up and that identity is ruined; you're a no-good donut-eater regardless of the quantity involved. Another way is as a consequence of a kind of absolutism. After all, you want your goals to be locked down so you can't just optimise the goalposts. But if your goal was "never eat a donut", you've now failed that goal. And since that goal's ruined anyway, you may as well chow down.

Which is a new way of thinking about my earlier idea of do and do not. The point is that when it becomes clear that a goal is unattainable you can find a new compromise goal, even if only to keep you in the habit of following through, and make it a little bit (but not too!) uncomfortable to fail. But it's also a good way of fighting the "what the hell" effect if your issue is absolutism. You can no longer do "no donuts", the natural reaction of "do not" would be giving up entirely, but the compromise between the two would be eating only one donut this week.

That's not the same thing as succeeding, of course; you still failed to achieve your original goal. But that doesn't mean you should also abandon nearby goals that are the best option remaining after the sunk cost goal is buried.