Study Suggests Key to Not Getting 'Hangry'

It’s about context and emotional awareness — yes, even when you’re hungry.

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A man holding a fresh hamburger and second one waiting in row. Fresh ground burger with onion, lettuce, tomato served with french fries.

Photo by: sorendls ©sorendls

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Sometimes hungry is just hungry. And sometimes ... well, sometimes it’s downright "hangry."

Those of us who have ever experienced the latter don’t need to be told by the Oxford Dictionaries, which added "hangry" as an official word in 2015, that it means "bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger." (And if you try to tell us something we already know right before lunchtime, we apologize in advance for our response.)

But now researchers have looked deeper into what makes someone tip over from regular-old hungry to full-blown hangry and concluded that it’s more than just a simple matter of a drop in blood sugar.

"There are some theories that ... as our blood sugar gets lower we don’t have the biological resources we need in order to control ourselves – so we just basically become these hangry monsters ...," the study’s lead author, Jennifer MacCormack, MA, a doctoral student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in a YouTube video posted by the American Psychological Association. "However, it could also be that there’s something else a bit more complex going on."

MacCormack and her co-author, assistant professor Kristen Lindquist, PhD, concluded that "context and self-awareness" both play a role in whether hunger will help propel us into an angry, aggressive response to a given situation.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal Emotion, enlisted 400 U.S. participants in two experiments. In one, the participants were shown images intended to induce either a positive, neutral or negative emotional response and were then shown an ambiguous Chinese pictograph, which they were to rate on a seven-point scale ranging from "pleasant" to "unpleasant." They also self-reported how hungry they felt.

Those who said they were hungry were more likely to give the ambiguous pictograph a negative rating only after they had first been given a "negative" image.

"Negative images provided a context for people to interpret their hunger feelings as meaning the pictographs were unpleasant," MacCormack said in a study release. "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."

Self-awareness also has an impact on whether hungry turns to hangry, MacCormack maintains. A person who is aware of having an emotional response to hunger is actually less likely to become hangry, the authors concluded following a second experiment.

In this second experiment, 200 college students were asked to either fast or eat before reporting to a laboratory. Once in the lab, some participants were directed to complete a writing exercise designed to direct then to consider their emotions and then all participants were asked to complete a painstakingly boring task on a computer that was pre-programmed to crash just as they were about to complete it. Compounding the potential for a negative response, a researcher then entered the room following the crash and blamed the malfunction on the student participant.

Asked afterwards to relay their feelings about the experiment, the participants who were hungry and had not completed the assignment that led them to focus on their emotions were more likely to report feeling stressed and angry at the researchers even than those who were hungry and had not been directed to consider their emotions at the outset of the study.

In other words, the data indicated "that by simply taking a step back from the present situation and recognizing how you’re feeling," MacCormack said, you can be hungry and still keep hangriness at bay.

Photo: iStock

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