Food rage: What flips us from hungry to hangry?

CHAPEL HILL, N. C. — What can turn a calm, rational person into a ravenous beast? The concept of hunger and anger combining to become “hangry” is so oft-used and compelling, the word is now even included in dictionaries.

But where exactly does hangry begin?

Researchers with the University of North Carolina set out to discover the mechanisms behind this physical/emotional conundrum. They say it is a result of a combination of things, not just a plummet in blood sugar levels. It is something like a pot of biology, personality and environmental cues that boils over. And if a watched pot never boils, being a good observer might be part of the cure.

“We all know that hunger can sometimes affect our emotions and perceptions of the world around us, but it’s only recently that the expression hangry, meaning bad-tempered or irritable because of hunger, was accepted by the Oxford Dictionary,” says lead author Jennifer MacCormack, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology and Neurocience at the university, in a release. “The purpose of our research is to better understand the psychological mechanisms of hunger-induced emotional states–in this case, how someone becomes hangry.”

Researchers say it takes more than physical hunger to produce a hangry response. Two key components add to the physical sensation: context and self-awareness.

“You don’t just become hungry and start lashing out at the universe,” says co-author Kristen Lindquist, PhD, an assistant professor at the university. “We’ve all felt hungry, recognized the unpleasantness as hunger, had a sandwich and felt better. We find that feeling hangry happens when you feel unpleasantness due to hunger but interpret those feelings as strong emotions about other people or the situation you’re in.”

To learn more about the lead-up to hangry, researchers set up two online experiments with 400 participants who were first shown an image that was intended to create positive, negative or neutral emotions. Then they were shown an ambiguous image of a Chinese pictograph and asked to rate it on a seven-point scale from pleasant to unpleasant. Participants also rated their hunger level during the experiment.

The results showed the impact of negative emotions on hunger. After hungrier participants were exposed to negative images, they were more likely to rate the ambiguous pictographs negatively. Seeing either neutral or positive priming images had no impact on pictograph ratings.

“The idea here is that the negative images provided a context for people to interpret their hunger feelings as meaning the pictographs were unpleasant,” says MacCormack. “So there seems to be something special about unpleasant situations that makes people draw on their hunger feelings more than, say, in pleasant or neutral situations.”

But there is another element to the puzzle: self-awareness. People who are more emotionally cognizant are able to notice when their hunger is turning into an emotion and are less likely to go into hangry mode.

A second experiment was undertaken in a laboratory setting with 200 university students. Some of the participants were asked to arrive in a fasting state while others were told to eat beforehand. Some of the students were given a writing exercise that would force them to focus on their emotions. Then all became players in a real-life scenario sure to stir plenty of emotions.

All participants were asked to begin a tedious computer exercise. They did not know that it was a setup, with the computers programmed to crash just before the annoying project was finished. To top it off, one of the researchers arrived to tell the students that it was their fault the computers crashed. Who hasn’t experienced this angst?

The students then filled out questionnaires describing their emotions and perceptions about the quality of the experiment. Not surprisingly, hungry participants were more likely to report such negative emotions as feeling stressed and hateful, even when they were not specifically focusing on their own emotions. They also felt that the researcher who popped into the room was harsh and judgmental.

But those participants who had spent time focusing on their own emotional state ahead of time did not experience these emotional shifts or changes in social perceptions, even when these individuals were hungry as they went through the experiment.

“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 notes.

Researchers say these results on hunger are a reminder of other challenges people face, such as fatigue or inflammation. They hope to do additional research to confirm how these other bodily states predispose us toward negative emotions.

This research is a good illustration of the mind-body connection, says MacCormack. “Our bodies play a powerful role in shaping our moment-to-moment experiences, perceptions and behaviors — whether we are hungry versus full, tired versus rested or sick versus healthy,” she says. “This means that it’s important to take care of our bodies, to pay attention to those bodily signals and not discount them, because they 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.”

Meanwhile, as another commercial once said, “Don’t go around hungry.” If you do, at least be aware of it and keep the beast at bay.

The research was published in the journal Emotion.

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