New study reveals how we can go from hungry to hangry

Leslie Hanson
June 14, 2018

It's a complex interplay between your feeling of hunger, your awareness of your feelings, and what's going on around you. Now, science has an explanation for why people get hangry, and it's a much more complicated emotion than you might think.

Lead author Jennifer MacCormack, MA, a doctoral student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill said that hangry is a recent term that means "bad-tempered or irritable because of hunger" and this term has been accepted by the Oxford Dictionary.

What makes someone go from simply being hungry to full-on "hangry"?

To prove this, the researchers designed and executed two online experiments.

Assistant professor and study co-author Kristen Lindquist added that the state of being hangry is one where people "feel unpleasantness due to hunger", but also feel "strong emotions" about their current situation or other people.

According to the researchers, when you are hungry, the little thing such as waiting in bad traffic, or getting a cranky text from your partner, can make you hangry.

For a biological state of hunger to turn into an emotional state of anger, the researchers found that negative contexts and lack of self-awareness play a key role. Those who said they felt hungry but were shown positive or neutral images before being shown the pictograph didn't react in such a negative manner. "The goal of our research is to better understand the psychological mechanisms of hunger-induced emotional states - in this case, how someone becomes hangry".

As you might have guessed, the hungrier the test subject, the more likely he or she was to rate the pictograph negatively. Their reactions after viewing a positive or neutral image however did not end up in a guess that the ambiguous picture was something unpleasant - same as not-hungry participants.

"The idea here is that the negative images provided a context for people to interpret their hunger feelings as meaning the pictographs were unpleasant", explained MacCormack.

The researcher then showed up and blamed the computer crash on the participant, before asking them to complete a survey dealing with emotion and satisfaction. Afterward, all the participants had to participate in a scenario that evoked negative emotions. All the students were then asked to write an essay that was either emotional or not related to feelings at all. The researchers found that hungry individuals reported greater unpleasant emotions like feeling stressed and hateful when they were not explicitly focused on their own emotions. They were then given a long and tedious computer task to do.

Separately, the same team of researchers looked at a different group of 236 people, all undergraduate students at UNC, who were then divided into two groups and asked to eat or fast before taking a writing test.

MacCormack added that, "Our bodies play a powerful role in shaping our moment-to-moment experiences, perceptions, and behaviors - whether we are hungry versus full, exhausted versus rested or sick versus healthy".

"Bodily signals 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".

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