Can hunger really make us feel ‘hangry’?

Can hunger really make us feel ‘hangry’?

  • European scientists have found new evidence that supports an association between the sensation of hunger and negative emotions.
  • These researchers harnessed smartphone technology to help capture people’s feelings of hunger and emotional state in real-time.
  • The context in which people may feel hunger could also exert an unconscious influence on emotions and behaviors.

The term “hangry” was coined in 1918 to describe irritability or anger due to being hungry. Anecdotal and clinical evidence shows that hunger can affect emotions and behavior.

A novel study, led by scientists in the United Kingdom and Austria, examines how hunger and emotions interact on a day-to-day basis.

Their results indicate that hunger may indeed be closely tied to feelings of anger, irritability, or low pleasure.

Lead author Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, the U.K., said that this study is the first to explore being “hangry” in everyday settings instead of a lab.

The findings appear in PLOS ONE.

App measures being “hangry”

Dr. Swami and his co-authors recruited 121 adults, and 64 completed the study. They ranged in age from 18 to 60 years.

Women made up 81.3% of the sample. No one reported “diverse” or “do not want to answer” regarding gender identity.

The researchers used the experience sampling method (ESM), which prompted participants to complete short surveys semi-randomly five times a day for 21 days. This was meant to record in-the-moment accounts of hunger experiences and emotional well-being.

Dr. Stefan Stieger, professor of psychology at Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences in Donau, Austria, coordinated the fieldwork. He commented: “This allowed us to generate intensive […] data in a manner not possible with traditional laboratory-based research.”

Participants downloaded an ESM smartphone app to input their data and guarantee anonymity.

Self-reported feelings?

This analysis depended on self-reported ratings, which prior research indicates as reliable assessments of hunger.

In an interview with Medical News Today, Dr. Swami explained:

“We didn’t measure physiological markers of hunger. However, self-reports of hunger (i.e., how participants subjectively experience their levels of hunger) are meaningful in the context of emotionality. Because self-reported hunger likely depends on an awareness of hunger cues, it can perhaps be assumed that it reflects the extent to which physiological effects of hunger have translated into awareness and attributional processes. “

“As such, self-reported hunger remains valuable in its own right, especially as hunger ratings are reliable both when made immediately and after several days when tested under similar conditions,” he added.

The participants submitted details on age, nationality, current relationship status, weight, height, and education before completing the surveys.

Questions involved current feelings of hunger, irritability, and anger. They also reported their current emotional state and level of alertness.

Substantial link to emotions

Even after accounting for demographic factors and individual personality traits, the data revealed that hunger can easily morph into “hanger.”

Hunger correlated with a 56% variance in irritability, a 48% variance in anger, and 44% variance in pleasure among the study’s participants.

Moreover, these variances coincided with day-to-day fluctuations in hunger and average hunger levels over the three-week period.

The professors stated: “[It] might be suggested that the experience of hunger is translated into negative emotions via a range of everyday situational cues and contexts that are perceived negatively[…]”

“In other words, hunger may not automatically lead to negative emotions, but given that inferences about the meaning of affect tend to be relatively automatic and unconscious, it may not take much for hungry individuals to experience anger and irritability.”

“Hangry” fruit flies

Researchers at the University of East Anglia (UEA) in Norwich, England found that insects can also exhibit “hangry” tendencies.

Dr. Jen Perry, of UEA’s School of Biological Sciences, was the senior author of a study observing this behavior among fruit flies. She was not involved in Dr. Swami’s study.

In an interview marking her study’s publication, Dr. Perry said:

“We found that hungry male fruit flies display more hostility toward each other. They’re more likely to aggressively lunge at each other and to swat at each other with their legs (‘fencing’ behavior), and they spend more time defending food patches.”

Limitations and strengths

The researchers acknowledged several “limiting factors” regarding their study.

Firstly, the study’s design made it impossible to weigh “specific situational contexts” with each participant and scenario. Also, using single-item measures for measuring irritability and anger did not allow the scientists to explore “potential nuances” in each experience.

Dr. Swami noted that he and his partners only measured anger, irritability, arousal, and pleasure. They excluded other emotional states to limit the burden on study subjects.

MNT asked Dr. Swami if the study accounts for mental health issues or other triggers that may have caused some participants to have negative emotions.

The professor responded: “This wasn’t the purpose of the study (i.e., to develop a full account of anger/irritability) and it wouldn’t have been possible using an exploratory sampling method anyway. We did, however, measure and control for trait anger.”

He added that analyzing how emotions could have contributed to the feelings of hunger was beyond the scope of the present work.

Managing emotions

The present study does not offer methods to reduce negative hunger-related feelings.

However, Dr. Swami noted: “[…research] suggests that being able to label an emotion can help people to regulate it, such as by recognizing that we feel angry simply because we are hungry.”

He is hopeful that “greater awareness of being ‘hangry’ could reduce the likelihood that hunger results in negative emotions and behaviors in individuals.”

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