If-then plans help protect us from the ‘to hell with it’ effect

You’re probably familiar with what could be called the ‘to hell with it’ effect. It’s when (as demonstrated by lots of research) a bad mood causes us to take risky decisions or engage in risky behaviour. Like when you’re feeling down and you drive home dangerously fast or go out and get drunk. Now a team led by Thomas Webb at the University of Sheffield says that we can protect ourselves from this effect by forming ‘if-then’ implementation decisions in advance. These are self-made plans which state that if a certain situation occurs, then I will respond in a pre-specified way.

A first study used a trick anagram task to put some students in a bad mood. They were told the task was easy and should only take them five minutes when in fact three of the anagrams were insoluble (pilot work had shown that this puts students in a grump). Other students were told the truth, so the task wasn’t expected to put them in a bad mood. Next, all the students said how they would behave in three imaginary scenarios – whether to drive an old car with brake problems, whether to disclose a secret to a room-mate, and whether to return deliberately damaged shoes to a shop for a refund.

Would being provoked into a bad mood encourage riskier behaviour? It depended whether the students had formed if-then plans in advance. During the previous week, ostensibly as part of a separate study, the students had been asked to keep a mood diary and to try to stay in as positive a mood as possible. Half the students (the control group) followed the simple instruction ‘I will try to stay in a positive mood’, which they were asked to repeat to themselves three times during the week. The others followed the if-then plan: ‘If I am in a negative mood, then I will … breathe deeply / think only positive thoughts / think how I’ve dealt successfully with previous situations’ (they could choose which ending to use). Again they had to repeat this three times during the week. The key finding was the being provoked into a bad mood by the impossible anagrams led the control students to make riskier decisions (the ‘to hell with it effect’ in action) but not the students who’d made the if-then implementation plans during the prior week. They seemed to have been inoculated.

This pattern of results was replicated in second study in the context of arousal and a gambling task. Like being in a bad mood, being more aroused is also associated with taking more risks. In this case, Bach’s Brandenberg concerto no. 3 was used to increase greater arousal in half the participants (the others listened to Beethoven’s moonlight sonata). The gambling task involved betting points on whether a token was hidden inside blue or red boxes on a computer screen. After the arousal induction but before the task, half the students formed the if-then plan ‘If I am asked to make a bet, then I will pay close attention to the number of red versus blue boxes’. The control students were simply told to end the game with as many points as they could. Consonant with the first study, increased arousal led the control students to play more riskily, but not the students who’d formed a protective if-then plan.

‘Taken together,’ the researchers said, ‘the findings of the two experiments suggest that people can strategically avoid the detrimental effect of unpleasant mood and arousal on risk taking by forming implementation intentions directed at controlling either the experience of mood or risky behaviour.’

How do if-then plans exert their protective effects? Webb and his colleagues can’t be sure, but they think they help form strong links between specific circumstances (e.g. when in a bad mood) and responses (e.g. breathe deeply) thereby making those responses easier to enact. ‘Future studies will need to confirm that these processes … explain how implementation intentions shield behaviour from the deleterious effects of mood,’ they said.

ResearchBlogging.orgWebb TL, Sheeran P, Totterdell P, Miles E, Mansell W, and Baker S (2010). Using implementation intentions to overcome the effect of mood on risky behaviour. The British journal of social psychology / the British Psychological Society PMID: 21050527

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

8 thoughts on “If-then plans help protect us from the ‘to hell with it’ effect”

  1. Having read this article from a project management perspective I must admit it makes an absolut sense to me. In the project management world we are required to perform risk management, some of the components of which are 1) the identification and quantification of project risks; and 2) determining what mitigation activities would be executed should that risk materialize and turn into a reality. So, using the example you brought above, a project that fails to make the necessary plans is more likely to be forced into a ‘the hell with it’ situation. Compare this with a project where the awareness required to deal with future likely events is taken into consideration, good chances such a project will be able to maintain its ‘good mood’ as the plans will be ready and the level of anxiety will remain low.

  2. This is a very powerful tool for people with depression, a component of which is suicide ideation.

    I am experiencing this at the moment.

    It's interesting to read about my condition, and be able to distance myself from it. In effect, I become an observer as well as a participant in my decision making.

    I experience “what the hell” episodes frequently, and they are often linked to planning terminal self harm. The knowledge I am gaining from reading about my condition, and becoming aware of the tools I can use for self preservation as an alternative to self destruction, it quite literally a life saver.

    I am almost two people. One person is staring into the abyss, the other is looking out for me with knowledge and self awareness.

    It is amazing that this actually works so well.

    Maybe it can be a tool that psychologists can use to help their high risk patients.

  3. A great blog and a brilliant piece of research. Seems to me it has very powerful stress management applications, especially the personal management of stress risks and stress prevention. Often stress is as a result of risky behaviours in reaction to unpleasant situations that could have been foreseen and planned for. I like the powerful but simple idea of 'if-then plans' and I'm going to build this kind of approach into training interventions on managing stress risks.

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