What Is The Science Behind Being Hangry

‘Hangry’ is a fairly recent addition to our vocabulary but an old familiar feeling to a lot of us. A portmanteau of ‘hungry’ and ‘angry’, it does a great job of conveying the grumpiness that sometimes comes with hunger. But what is the science behind being hangry?

Hangry Science

Some answers might come from a recent study published in Emotion by doctoral student Jennifer MacCormack and Professor Kristen Lindquist of the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Titled ‘Feeling Hangry? When Hunger Is Conceptualized as Emotion’, results from the study suggest being hangry is an emotional response drawing on biology, personality and environmental cues.

The first phase of the study consisted of two online experiments taken by over 400 hundred participants.

The participants were asked to assess and report how hungry they were. Next, they were shown images meant to elicit a positive, neutral or negative emotional response.

They were then shown an emotionally ambiguous image of a Chinese pictograph and asked to rate it on a spectrum from pleasant to unpleasant.

The results showed that the hungrier the participants were, the more likely they were to rate the pictograph as unpleasant, but only when they had been primed with an image that elicited a negative reaction first.

Positive and neutral images had no effect.

MacCormack hypothesises that the negative image acted as context for people to interpret their hunger, resulting in them finding the pictograph unpleasant.

She goes on to say, ‘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.’

Hungry Students

In the second phase of the study, university students were asked to write an essay.

Half the students were told to write about their own emotions, while the other half had to write about a neutral, non-emotional day.

Before arriving, half had been told not to eat for five hours, while the others were told to eat prior to coming.

After completing the writing section, the students were set an intentionally boring and tedious computer task, which was designed to crash the computer just before completion.

A researcher would then come into the room, ask what happened and blame the students for the crash.

‘Then we let them stew for two minutes. Nobody blew up at me, but some people looked nervous and upset. A lot of eye rolls. People crossed their arms,’ said MacCormack.

After this the poor students were instructed to fill in a survey describing their satisfaction with the research. Naturally there were a lot of negative replies.

Surprisingly though, only the hungry students who were instructed to write the emotionally neutral essay reported major negative emotions like stress or hate in their responses.

The hungry students who had written about their emotions beforehand did not show the same level negative feelings.

This suggests that reflecting on and acknowledging their emotions eliminated their ‘hangriness’, even when they were put into a situation designed to annoy them.

For MacCormack, this means that by ‘taking a step back from the present situation and recognising how you’re feeling, you can still be you even when hungry.’

The Mind-Body Connection

Hunger can change how your senses work, so it is not surprising that it can change how you think and feel as well.

This research shows the importance of the mind-body connection, and the way we feel physically plays a big role in how we feel mentally and emotionally.

MacCormack concludes:

‘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 experiences, social relationships and work performance.’

Perhaps we should all take some of her advice, regardless of whether we get hangry or not.

And if you do get hangry, remember to take a step back — or keep a snack handy.

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