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What makes someone go from being hungry to hangry? Scientists may have found out

The combination of hunger and anger may be a complicated emotional response involving an interplay of biology, personality and environmental cues.

Image: structuresxx via Shutterstock

WHAT MAKES SOMEONE go from simply being hungry to full-on “hangry”? Scientists in the US may have found out.

More than just a simple drop in blood sugar, the combination of hunger and anger may be a complicated emotional response involving an interplay of biology, personality and environmental cues, according to research published by the American Psychological Association in the Emotion journal.

“We know that hunger can sometimes affect our emotions and perceptions of the world around us but it’s only recently that the expression hangry, meaning bad-tempered or irritable because of hunger, was accepted by the Oxford Dictionary,” lead author Jennifer MacCormack of the University of North Carolina said.

“The purpose of our research is to better understand the psychological mechanisms of hunger-induced emotional states – in this case, how someone becomes hangry.”

When someone is hungry, there are two key things that determine if that hunger will contribute to negative emotions or not, according to MacCormack – context and self-awareness.

“You don’t just become hungry and start lashing out at the universe,” co-author Kristen Lindquist said.

“We’ve all felt hungry, recognised the unpleasantness as hunger, had a sandwich and felt better. We find that feeling hangry happens when you feel unpleasantness due to hunger but interpret those feelings as strong emotions about other people or the situation you’re in.”

The research

The researchers first conducted two online experiments involving more than 400 individuals from the US. Depending on the experiment, participants were shown an image designed to induce positive, neutral or negative feelings. They were shown an ambiguous image – a Chinese pictograph – and asked to rate it on a seven-point scale from pleasant to unpleasant.

Participants were also asked to report how hungry they felt.

The researchers found that hungrier participants were more likely to rate ambiguous Chinese pictographs as negative, but only after first being primed with a negative image. There was no effect for neutral or positive images.

“The idea here is that the negative images provide a context for people to interpret their hunger feelings as meaning the pictographs were unpleasant,” MacCormack said.

“So there seems to be something special about unpleasant situations that makes people draw on their hunger feelings more than, say, in pleasant or neutral situations.”

Emotional awareness

It’s not just environmental cues that can affect whether someone goes from hungry to hangry, according to MacCormack. People’s levels of emotional awareness also matter. People who are more aware that their hunger is manifesting as an emotion are less likely to become hangry.

In an experiment involving more than 200 university students, the researchers asked the participants either to fast or eat beforehand. After some of the students were asked to complete a writing exercise designed to direct their focus on their emotions, all participants were asked to participate in a scenario designed to evoke negative emotions.

Students were asked to complete a tedious experience on a computer that, unbeknownst to them, was programmed to crash just before it could be completed. One of the other researchers then came into the room and blamed the student for the computer crash.

Participants were then asked to fill out questionnaires on their emotions. The researchers found that hungry individuals reported greater unpleasant emotions, such as feeling stressed and hateful when they were not explicitly focused on their own emotions. These individuals also thought that the researcher was more judgemental or harsh.

“A well-known commercial once said ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’, but our data hints that by simply taking a step back from the present situation and recognising how you’re feeling, you can still be you even when hungry,” MacCormack said.

“Our bodies play a powerful role in shaping our moment-to-moment experiences, perceptions and behaviours – whether we are hungry versus full, tired versus rested or sick versus healthy,” she said.

“This means that it’s important to take care of our bodies, to pay attention to those bodily signals and not discount them, because they matter not just for our long-term mental health, but also for the day-to-day quality of our psychological experiments, social relationships and work performance.”

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