Hangry! How hunger affects your mood

Being hungry makes you moody - hangry - and also puts you in a negative emotional state, new research has shown...
14 June 2018


Being hungry makes you moody - hangry - and also puts you in a negative emotional state, new research has shown...

The word "hangry" was first coined in the 1950s as a fusion of the words "hungry" and "angry". Today it's in sufficiently common parlance to warrant a place in the Oxford English Dictionary, whcih defines hangry as bad tempered or irritable as a result of hunger

With hunger, people tend to be more aggressive, more impulsive, and altogether grumpier. But "hangriness" might be more than just a handy excuse for being in a bad mood. Because University of North Carolina psychologists Jennifer MacCormack and Kristen Lindquist have found that hunger pangs can colour the rose-tinted spectacles through which we view the world.

“I’ve always been interested in why physical states, like being hungry or tired, really seem to influence us," says MacCormack.

When we are hungry our brains have a harder time accessing the nutrients they need and so emotions can become harder to control. But MacCormack wonders whether there might be more to it than this. "We still don’t really understand the psychology behind this; what the 'inside the head mechanism' might be," she says.

To find out, the duo designed two experiments. In the first, they asked participants to rate how hungry they were. They then primed the subjects with either positive, negative or neutral images, and then asked them to interpret some Chinese pictographs (which to those who do not speak Mandarin or Cantonese, represent ambiguous stimuli).

People who were hungrier were more likely to interpret the Chinese pictographs as being more negative, but only in situations where they had been primed with negative images beforehand. In all other situations, there was no difference in interpretation between people who were hungry and those who were satiated.

This probably means that "hangriness" is context-dependent. In other words, it looks like people are more likely to experience the feeling of being "hangry" in situations where they are already in a bad mood.

In the second experiment, MacCormack and Lindquist asked the participants, who were fed or fasted, either to write a short story about a fictitious person’s emotions based on a photograph they were shown, or a neutral story describing somebody’s day. Then they were asked to perform a frustrating task on a computer.

"What we saw was that it was the hungry participants who had not been directed to think about emotions beforehand who got hangry," says MacCormack. "They generally reported more negative emotions compared to the people who were full, but also compared to the hungry people who had taken the time to write about emotions beforehand."

This could be important for people who are looking for a way to prevent themselves from getting hangry. 

"This suggests to us that taking the time to notice how you’re feeling could actually help you not become hangry," advises MacCormack. This seems to work whether or not a person has eaten, so could be an effective strategy when it's still a long time until lunch.

So could other bodily states, such as thirst or tiredness influence our emotions? MacCormack seems to think so. "These states are going to be having a physiological effect on your nervous system, but also on how your brain is generating your feelings. In the next fifty years or so I suspect that we’ll have a lot more research showing exactly how these processes in the body are impacting our brains and our minds."


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