The Scientific Reason You Feel "Hangry"

Republished with permission from Musely an Evio Community Partner

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Hangry: a combination of "hungry" and "angry", and that irritable feeling we've all felt when we haven't eaten. 

But is being hangry a real thing? “It’s generally accepted that hunger can impact our moods and even behaviors like aggression and impulsivity,” says Jennifer MacCormack, a doctoral student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), and lead author of a new study published Monday in the journal Emotion. “But we still don’t know much about the psychological mechanisms that transform hunger into feeling hangry.” 

MacCormack and her colleagues did a series of experiments and found that being in a stressful situation and not being in tune with your emotions can trigger a person to cross the line from hungry to hangry.

First, the researchers asked more than 400 people from across the country to do a few online experiments. In one, the people were shown an image that was meant to induce positive, neutral or negative feelings - like a puppy, lightbulb, or snake. They were then shown an intentionally ambiguous image - a Chinese pictograph. They were asked about their hunger levels and to rate the image on a scale from pleasant to unpleasant. The hungrier the people were, the more likely they were to rate the image unpleasant if they were shown a negative image before it. This suggests that in a negative situation, people may be more likely to experience their hunger-related feelings - hanger - than if they are in a pleasant or neutral situation, MacCormack and her fellow researchers say.

In another study, the researchers asked roughly 200 college students to either eat or fast before they came into the lab. Some of the students were asked to complete a writing exercise about their emotions and others wrote about a neutral, everyday experience. All of them were then subjected to a stressful situation; they were asked to do a project on a computer programmed to crash right before they finished it. During the moment of the computer crash, a researcher entered the room and blamed the student for the computer trouble. 

The students were then asked to fill out questionnaires asking them about their emotions and the quality of the experiment. The students who hadn’t eaten were more likely to report feeling stressed and hateful if they had not done the writing exercise focusing on their emotions. They were also more likely to describe the researcher as harsh and judgmental.

However, the students who spent the time writing about their emotions were much less likely to report feeling bad or resenting the researchers - even if they were in the group that fasted before the study. This suggested to the researchers that people who are less aware of their emotional states may be more likely to react with hanger.

“Despite the colloquial term ‘hanger,’ we found that this effect was not specific to anger,” says study co-author Kristen Lindquist, an assistant professor in Psychology & Neuroscience at UNC. “People in our studies were more likely to feel intense negativity in general when they were hungry and something bad happened - suggesting that feeling hungry can turn up the dial on lots of negative emotions such as anger, stress or disgust.”

The study suggests that even though we all get hungry, we can use tools to prevent us from getting that hangry feeling. "By better understanding the factors that lead us to become hangry, we can give people the tools to recognize when hunger is impacting their feelings and behaviour," says MacCormack

When we understand our emotions, we can prevent negative feelings and reactions from occurring. And although more research needs to be done on exactly what causes us to get upset when we haven't eaten in awhile, this study provides some clues.