Do You Make Better Decisions When Hungry?

Results from tests on university students contradict the notion that hunger makes you impulsive, instead it might make you intuitive

kid eating
Granger Wootz/Blend Images/Corbis

Experience tells us that a growling stomach might make you impulsively scarf a greasy burger and fries or cause you to waver when trying choose which leftover to reheat for lunch. So making decisions while hungry seems like a bad idea, right? Well, new research shows that the whole picture might be more complicated.

Hunger is a "hot state" emotionally, according to Denise de Ridder and her colleagues at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. In a paper published in PLOS One, they argue that hot states, which are characterized by heightened arousal, make people rely on their gut feelings and therefore improve their decision-making.

The researchers did three different experiments that paired fasting with a decision-making task to see how being hungry affects the choices we make. The results show that being hungry might help people make better decisions.

Students were told to fast (consuming nothing except water) starting the night before the experiment. When they arrived at the test location, one group was offered yogurt and other food to quell hunger pangs, but the other group had to perform hungry. For two of the experiments, the students played a computerized version of the "The Iowa Gambling Task," which measures decision making when faced with risk. In the third, a longer questionnaire assessed their ability to weigh risk and delayed rewards. Over all tests, the researchers tested 81 students.

The "Iowa Gambling Task" involves picking cards from four different decks. The goal is to win the most money, naturally. Some of the cards carry penalties and others rewards (but the picker doesn’t know this at first). Two of the decks have higher rewards but also higher penalties — and therefore they aren’t good choices in the long run. You can try your hand at this game with this iTunes app. 

Hungry students figured it out and chose more cards from the advantageous desks, the researchers report. They also made better decisions in the delay-gratification test.

Whether this means that other hot states—arousal, for example—could also help us choose wisely, isn’t clear, as Tom Jacobs for Pacific Standard reports:

Hunger is a very specific sensation, of course, and other emotions will need to be tested before coming to any wide-ranging conclusions. But this study suggests that under certain circumstances—like when we’re in need of nourishment—our intuitive sense is to be trusted over our confused, confounded cognitive abilities.

Instead, other work suggests that sexual arousal "hijacks the brain leading to a focus on immediate pleasure an gratification," reports Psychology Today. Also, hunger might make sticking to a diet or resisting a cigarette craving more difficult. So don’t necessarily rely on a hungry gut to make you wise.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.