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Being Hangry Is Real, But You Can Control It

Hunger elicits similar responses as emotions, but it only turns into “hanger” when people are already primed with negative feelings

Hangry like the wolf. (iStock/timnewman)
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The word “hangry,” a contraction of “hungry” and “angry,” has only been in common use since the beginning of the century, but the experience of being simultaneously hungry and angry is as old as the human stomach. Now, reports Angus Chen at NPR, researchers have taken a step toward figuring out why irritability and peckishness go together like macaroni and cheese.

To study the phenomenon, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill Ph.D candidate Jennifer MacCormack and her colleagues first conducted two online experiments on 400 subjects. Participants were primed by images designed to elicit positive, negative or neutral emotions before being shown a neutral Chinese character, meant to function as a sort of Rorschach inkblot with no inherent meaning (subjects who spoke Chinese were excluded from the test). They then rated the the character on a seven-point scale from pleasant to unpleasant. They were also asked how hungry they felt. Hungry people shown the negative image were more likely to rate the character as negative as well, showing that hunger tends to amplify negative feelings, though it did not seem to affect people shown neutral or positive images.

In a second experiment, the team enlisted 118 undergrads for a lab study, instructing them to fast for five or more hours before coming in. Another group of 118 students was instructed to eat a meal before the experiment.

Half of the students were instructed to write a short essay about their emotions to direct their attention to how they were feeling. The other half were told to write about an unemotional humdrum day. Then they were instructed to complete an intentionally tedious task on the computer, sorting bright circles that were annoying to look at. As the student neared the end of the task, the computer was programmed to pop up “the blue screen of death,” making it look like the student's computer had crashed. Then a researcher would enter the scene and blame the student for the crash, telling them they pressed a wrong button.

According to a press release, after the experiment, the students were asked to fill out a questionnaire about their emotions and the quality of the experiment. The hungry students who had written about the humdrum day tended to lash out more, expressing more feelings of stress and anger. They rated the researchers as harsher or more judgmental. However, the students who wrote about their emotions, focusing on their feelings before the task, did not share these same shifts in emotions and social perception. In other words, with a little self-reflection, "hanger" can be defused. The research appears in the journal Emotion.

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

So why does hunger ramp up anger in the first place? The reason is not clear, but at The Conversation MacCormack explains that previous studies have shown hunger activates many of the same physiological systems as emotions. Hunger causes the body to release the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline. The hungrier you are, the more hormones are released, causing stress and priming us for action—like lashing out in anger. When you’re hungry—like when you’re in the grip of a strong emotion—it can temporarily change how you see the world, a concept called affect-as-information theory.

“These findings suggest that feeling hangry occurs when your hunger-induced negativity gets blamed on the external world around you. You think that person who cut you off on the road is the one who made you angry – not the fact that you’re ravenous,” MacCormack writes. “This seems to be a fairly unconscious process: People don’t even realize they’re making these attributions.”

Elizabeth Davis, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, not involved with the study, tells Chen that the experiments show that being hangry is dependent on context. If we’re hungry and having a bad day and a snooty grad student blames us for their crappy computer freaking out, we’re likely to direct our anger at them. If we’re hungry because we just ran through a field of daisies with a pack of adorable puppies, we might not be so snappy. “[Hunger] signals to us that something is wrong — that it's time to eat,” Davis says. “But as humans, we may misattribute that aversive feeling to something external before we look into what our body is telling us.”

MacCormack suggests that snacking on protein-packed, healthy snacks can keep "hanger" at bay, a move that could alleviate some of the world's problems. Just this week an Ontario woman described as hangry was admonished by police for calling 911 to complain that a pizza place was taking too long to bake her pie.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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