Scientists explain 'Hangry'

There have been many instances when we have been irritable, annoyed, negative, and grumpy only because underneath we are feeling hungry. A new term “hangry” has been coined to explain this condition. Researchers have delved into why this occurs in a latest study.

Image Credit: Kichigin / Shutterstock
Image Credit: Kichigin / Shutterstock

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 that hangry is a recent term that means “bad-tempered or irritable because of hunger” and this term has been accepted by the Oxford Dictionary.

There have been earlier studies that have shown that hunger can in fact affect the mood mainly because hunger is responsible for affecting hormones as well as the autonomic nervous system – both of which could have effects on mood. Hunger for example triggers the release of the stress hormone cortisol and the neurotransmitter adrenaline. Both of these are associated with stress. This makes one tense and edgy due to hunger.

Researchers including MacCormack and assistant professor Kristen Lindquist, PhD, explored how hunger influenced mood and its effects on anger. The psychologists who conducted this study explain that mood of the person can temporarily give a shape to the world around a person. For example when a person is hungry, they may view the world in a negative manner compared to when they are not hungry. The researchers explain that while the person might feel angry and edgy they might not be able to focus on exactly what is affecting their mood and instead maybe blame something that is not going right around them. This is called the “affect-as-information” theory, they explained.

To see if people who are hangry are not exactly focussed on their feelings, three different studies were designed by the researchers. In the first study, conducted online, the participants were asked to participate either in hungry or full state. They were first given either a negative or a positive or a neutral emotional image to view. Then they were given an ambiguous image with a pictograph or a Chinese character and asked to guess if it could mean something pleasant or unpleasant. Results showed that people who were hungry and saw the negative image first were more likely to guess that the ambiguous picture was something negative or unpleasant. Their reactions after viewing a positive or neutral image however did not end up in a guess that the ambiguous picture was something unpleasant – same as not-hungry participants. The authors of the study concluded that negative outcomes or outlook resulted when a person was faced with a negative stimulus or experience when hungry only and not when he or she faced a positive or neutral situation. This means that the hunger becomes relevant only when there are negative situations around because hunger also causes negative and unpleasant feelings.

In the next study the team recreated a frustrating situation in the laboratory. For this study two random group of 118 undergraduate students were included. One group was asked to not eat anything for five hours while the other was asked to come in after a full meal. All the students were then asked to write an essay that was either emotional or not related to feelings at all. They were then given a long and tedious computer task to do. At the end of the task the researchers made the computers to “crash” using a secret program. Now the student participant was blamed for the malfunctioning computer and was asked to re-do the task once the computer was fixed.

The types of outcomes noted were:

  • Not hungry people and hungry people who did not deal with emotional stories before the task were less stressed, negative and hateful
  • Hungry people who had dealt with emotional stories before the start of the task tended to be angrier, stressed, and negative and felt judged by the researchers once their task failed.

The study concluded that hunger is a trigger but there are also negative stimuli around that potentiate the negative feelings of hanger. Most people are unaware that they are attributing the surroundings for their irritability rather than hunger. The results of the study were published in the latest issue of the journal Emotion.

Authors of the study plan to take this theory further with tests on people with eating disorders and diabetes and how hunger affects their mood.

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