“What-the-hell” Cognitive Failure Mode: a Separate Bias or a Combination of Other Biases?

The “what-the-hell” effect, when you break a rule and then go on a rule-break­ing ram­page, like binge eat­ing af­ter a sin­gle dietary trans­gres­sion, is a very com­mon failure mode. It was re­cently men­tioned in the Over­com­ing Bias blog com­ments on the Which bi­ases mat­ter most? Let’s pri­ori­tise the worst! post. I have not been able to find an ex­plicit dis­cus­sion of this is­sue here, though there are quite a few com­ments on binge-<some­thing>.

From the Psy­blog en­try quot­ing this pa­per:

Although ev­ery­one was given the same slice of pizza; when it was served up, for some par­ti­ci­pants it was made to look larger by com­par­i­son.

This made some peo­ple think they’d eaten more than they re­ally had; al­though in re­al­ity they’d all eaten ex­actly the same amount. It’s a clever ma­nipu­la­tion and it means we can just see the effect of think­ing you’ve eaten too much rather than ac­tu­ally hav­ing eaten too much.

When the cook­ies were weighed it turned out that those who were on a diet and thought they’d blown their limit ate more of the cook­ies than those who weren’t on a diet. In fact over 50% more! [Em­pha­sis mine]

Other ex­am­ples in­clude slid­ing back into one’s old drink­ing/​smok­ing/​sur­fing habit. For ex­am­ple, that’s how I stopped us­ing Po­modoro.

My (ti­tle) ques­tion is, what’s the mechanism of this cog­ni­tive failure and whether it can be re­duced to a com­bi­na­tion of ex­ist­ing bi­ases/​fal­la­cies? If the lat­ter is true, can ad­dress­ing one of the com­po­nents coun­ter­act the what-the-hell effect? If so, how would one go about test­ing it?

For com­plete­ness, the top hit from Google scholar to the “what-the-hell effect” query is chap­ter 5 of Striv­ing and Feel­ing: In­ter­ac­tions Among Goals, Affect, and Self-reg­u­la­tion, by Martin and Tesser.

EDIT: per­sonal anec­dotes are en­couraged, they may help con­struct a more com­plete pic­ture.