The science behind feeling hangry, revealed

The more aware you are of your hunger, the less likely you are to feel angry

Rachel Hosie
Monday 11 June 2018 14:00 BST

As the stomach rumbles become increasingly regular, your fuse shortens: the concept of being ‘hangry’ - angry due to hunger - is all too real for many of us.

Scientific researchers have now studied how hunger manifests as an emotion and found that we interpret ambiguous images and scenarios as negatives when we’re hungry.

According to the team from the University of North Carolina, we also experience heightened levels of stress and a higher sense of persecution. So yes, hanger is very real.

However, this isn’t simply down to a drop in blood sugar, the study published by the American Psychological Association reveals.

In fact, hanger is likely a complicated emotional response due to biology, personality and environmental cues.

"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,” said lead author Jennifer MacCormack, MA, a doctoral student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“The purpose of our research is to better understand the psychological mechanisms of hunger-induced emotional states - in this case, how someone becomes hangry.”

When you’re hungry, there are two main factors that determine whether the feeling of hunger will contribute to negative emotions or not: context and self-awareness.

“You don’t just become hungry and start lashing out at the universe,” said assistant professor Kristen Lindquist, PhD, the study’s co-author.

“We’ve all felt hungry, recognised 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.”

The researchers carried out experiments on more than 400 Americans to draw their conclusions.

Depending on the experiment, participants were shown an image designed to induce positive, neutral or negative feelings. They were then shown an ambiguous image, a Chinese pictograph, and asked to rate the pictograph on a seven-point scale from pleasant to unpleasant. Participants were also asked to report how hungry they felt.

The researchers found that the hungrier the participants were , the more likely they were to rate the Chinese pictographs as negative, but only after first being primed with a negative image. There was no effect for neutral or positive images.

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

As well as these environmental cues, how hangry a person feels is affected by their level of emotional awareness - if you’re more aware that your hunger is manifesting as an emotion, you’re less likely to feel hangry.

In a second experiment, 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 also expressed more negative feelings towards others.

In contrast, those who spent time thinking about their emotions, even when hungry, did not report these shifts in emotions or social perceptions.

“By simply taking a step back from the present situation and recognising how you're feeling, you can still be you even when hungry,” MacCormack said.

“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.”

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