Scientists are here to save your relationship with food.
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 in case you missed it, in 2015 the Oxford English Dictionary officially recognized hangry as feeling “bad tempered or irritable as the result of hunger.”
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. Thus glucose equals energy. No glucose equals 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 signed up 236 PSYC 101 students from UNC to participate in a lab experiment for research credit. The students were told they’d be testing their visual performance in relation to glucose levels. (Sneaky scientists!) Half of the students were instructed to fast for a minimum of five hours before their next lab visit. The other half were told to have a large meal or snack just before.
On the day of their visit, researchers started by having students compare pairs of geometric shapes and assess whether they could be rotated in space to match or not. They told them to get through as many as they could before moving on to the next task. It was designed to be long and tedious. More importantly, it was meant to assess whether fasters exercised less self-restraint and quit sooner than their satiated counterparts.
But alas, hunger didn’t seem to disrupt their performance. Hungry and full students completed a similar number of shape pairings, pretty much killing the self-restraint theory.
Diving Deeper Into Hanger Science
Here’s where the scientists got really sneaky.
The researchers then asked 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, subjects worked on a puzzle on the computer, which was set up to crash just before they were able to finish a task. (Sneaky, I tell you!) When the students inevitably got up to notify the experimenter, they received the following response: “What did you do? What keys did you press? This has never happened before.”
Finally, they were presented with a questionnaire asking about their experience, including what emotions they felt and what they thought about the experimenter.
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 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 reported 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 wasn’t 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’re caught in a moment of hanger, simply focus your awareness on your emotional state. That simple step may help reduce the intensity of this feeling. Armed with this knowledge, we expect couples and friends traveling together can prevent conflicts.