Why We Do Stupid Things

We all do things we know we’ll regret. They could be little, like funnelling Thin Mints straight from the sleeve when we’re ostensibly on a diet or sending an angry, heat-of-the-moment email we know will require a mea culpa. Or they could be big, like having an affair or relapsing into drugs again. Turns out it’s not just you—it’s science. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen reveals three reasons we do dumb things.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
Episode #098
man impulsively cuts own hair

Reason #2: Deprivation, Suppression, and Obsession. Anyone who’s ever been on a diet knows the effect of deprivation: it not only makes us miserable, it makes us obsessed. In the famous 1945 Minnesota Starvation Experiment, which was run to determine famine relief practices after World War II, healthy volunteers were semi-starved for 6 months on a diet of about 1500 calories a day.  The result?  Not only were they apathetic, irritable, and exhausted, not to mention weak and emaciated, they also became obsessed with food.  The participants thought about food 24/7--they obsessively read cookbooks and stared at pictures of food.  

In an interview with one of the participants sixty years later, he said, “Food became the one central and only thing really in one’s life. And life is pretty dull if that’s the only thing. I mean, if you went to a movie, you weren’t particularly interested in the love scenes, but you noticed every time they ate and what they ate.”

Even after the study was over and they were once again at a healthy weight, the participants reported feeling so hungry they couldn’t eat enough. Once done with the study, they ate an average of 5,000 calories a day, sometimes topping out at over 10,000 calories.

So what does this mean for self-imposed deprivation? If you’re tough on yourself and aim for some serious deprivation: cut out all sugar, drastically curb spending, exercise excessively, or stick to an overly strict diet, sudden deprivation might make you crave that forbidden fruit.

But wait, it gets worse. When you try to suppress that craving, it gets stronger. Why? Suppression is like trying to hold a beach ball underwater. Not only are the thoughts right below the surface, but once the effort wears you down, they surge back up with a vengeance, which leads to doing the exact thing you were trying not to do.  And then, once we slip, it leads to ...

Reason #3: The What the Hell? Effect. So once we accidentally-on-purpose eat the remains of our kid’s abandoned cookie (but it would have gone to waste!) the What the Hell Effect? kicks in, the breaking of the inhibitional dam just because it sprung a leak.

A bite leads to a whole cookie, because well, we’ve ruined things already so we might as well enjoy ourselves, right? A cookie leads to a sleeve and we end up with a stomachache and a bad case of self-loathing.  A few bites of cookie quickly expands to eating whatever’s not nailed down for dessert, the day, or maybe the week.

While food is the classic example, anything we deprive ourselves of in the name of self-improvement—screen time, spending, sugar--invites the What the Hell effect.  Even a little bit of criminal behavior can snowball: “I got away with stealing that pack of gum, might as well try for the jeans!” In short, we aim for cold turkey, only to end up going whole hog.  

To wrap up, there are myriad reasons we do stupid things, and though none of these might explain the Double Down Sandwich tattoo, I’m not sure anything could.

For more on the What the Hell Effect, check out How to Stop Dieting from the archives.

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About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. 

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