Why Hunger Isn’t All To Blame For Feeling Hangry

Scientists are here to save your relationship.

A new study from the University of North Carolina has insight into why people get “hangry” – and it’s not just a lack of food!

What Is Hanger?

We’re sure you’re familiar with the awful feeling already, but just in case you missed it, the Oxford Dictionary officially recognized hangry as feeling “bad tempered or irritable as the result of hunger,” in 2015.

Take for example, the woman who recently called the police when the pizza she ordered was running late. (Girl, we feel you.)

It turns out, there’s a very specific interaction that can trigger the dreaded hangry mood. But first, here’s what we already know about how hunger affects your brain.

Hangry Findings Thus Far

A 2016 study at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden found that ghrelin (“the hunger hormone”) increases impulsive behavior. Another study at the University of Florida found that low glucose levels correlate with greater aggression in married couples. Their reasoning? Keeping the peace in a relationship requires self-restraint, which requires energy. Glucose = energy. No glucose = a very prickly voodoo doll of your spouse.

Even with the current findings surrounding hanger, researchers at the University of North Carolina weren’t sold on the theory about low glucose levels and self-restraint.

A Breakthrough in Hanger Science

To find out for sure, they sign up 236 PSYC 101 students from UNC to participate in a lab experiment for research credit. The students are told they will be testing their visual performance in relation to glucose levels (sneaky scientists!) Half of the students are instructed to fast for a minimum of five hours before their next lab visit, the other half are told to have a large meal or snack just before.

On the day of their visit, researchers start by having students compare pairs of geometric shapes and assess whether they can be rotated in space to match or not. They tell them to get through as many as they can and then move on to the next task. It’s designed to be long and tedious and is meant to assess whether fasters exercise less self-restraint and quit sooner than their satiated counterparts.

But alas, hunger doesn’t seem to disrupt their performance. Hungry and full students complete a similar number of shape pairings pretty much killing the self-restraint theory.

Diving Deeper Into Hanger Science

This is where scientists get real sneaky.

The researchers then ask students to complete a writing exercise describing the emotional state of a man in a photo. The expression on the man’s face is either angry, sad or neutral. We’ll come back to why in a bit.

Next, they have them work on a puzzle on the computer which is set up to crash just before they are able to finish a task. (Sneaky, I tell you!) When the students inevitably get up to notify the experimenter, the response they receive is “What did you do? What keys did you press? This has never happened before.”

Finally, they’re presented with a questionnaire asking about their experience including what emotions they felt and what they thought about the experimenter.

The Results

So what do we learn from this elaborate farce?

It turns out our emotional awareness plays a significant role in whether we get hangry or not. Students who wrote about anger or sadness before dealing with the computer crash and disgruntled experimenter were far less judgmental and angry than those who who were focused on the neutral emotive state. In other words, people who were mindful about anger and sadness were more forgiving of the uncomfortable situation.

“Context plays a central role in whether hunger is conceptualized as emotions, as does the focus of a person’s attention,” Jenifer K. MacCormack and Kristen A. Lindquist report in the study. “Our findings also suggest that having an emotional label accessible could lead to the implicit regulation of emotion, reducing the likelihood that hunger results in the experience of negative, high arousal emotions or judgements that people and objects in the world are unpleasant.”

How To Handle Hangry Feelings

So, what’s the secret to handling your hanger?

First, try and avoid it when possible. MacCormack and Lindquist’s initial research proved that hunger alone was not enough to induce hanger. Rather, hanger was dependent on the influence of a negative context. So before you head into any challenging situations (think tests, travel, big meetings, tough conversations, driving through traffic) – have a snack!

Then, if you are caught in a moment of hanger, try simply focusing your awareness on your emotional state. That simple step may help to reduce the intensity of the feeling. Armed with this knowledge, we expect couples and traveling friends can save themselves from many a fight.

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