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Scientists Confirm Feeling “Hangry” is a Real Thing

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Have you ever skipped lunch and found yourself trying not to lose your temper on your evening commute, trying to ignore your rumbling stomach? “Hangry” – a portmanteau of hungry and angry – has been used colloquially to describe the combination of these feelings for some time. Now, researchers have conducted a study that found feeling “hangry” is indeed a real phenomenon, confirming that hunger and negative emotions often come hand in hand.

The study is published in PLOS ONE.

How hunger influences behavior

People have recognized the associations between hunger and anger anecdotally for some time, and there have been a number of studies that substantiate these observations.

For example, in non-human species, food deprivation has been observed to escalate aggression and competition for food resources. Additionally, the stomach-derived hormone ghrelin – responsible for sending hunger signals to the brain – has been associated with increased impulsive behavior in rats.

Bizarrely, a study in humans even found that when blood glucose levels were low, married couples were more likely to insert a larger number of pins into a “voodoo” doll representing their spouse and blast louder noises at them through headphones compared to when their glucose was higher.

An app to measure levels of “hangry”

In the current study, researchers aimed to directly determine the relationship between hunger and negative emotions and generate robust real-world data outside of laboratory settings. To achieve this, they utilized an experience sampling method (ESM) study to measure peoples’ emotions and hunger levels in their everyday lives.

What is an ESM study?

ESM stands for experience sampling method, also known as an ecological momentary assessment.

These studies send prompts to participants semi-randomly on multiple occasions throughout the day over a set period of time. Prompts invite participants to complete short surveys, allowing data-gathering over a longer period of time than could be achieved with laboratory-based research and in a natural setting more relevant to peoples’ lives.

Participants from central Europe signed up for an app that the researchers used for data collection. For three weeks, participants received five daily smartphone notifications prompting them to complete a short survey. Three of these notifications were sent at fixed times before main meals at 8 am, 12 pm and 6 pm, when participants were likely to be hungry, and the remaining two were sent randomly between 9–11 am and 1–5 pm.

This was designed to collect data across participants’ everyday environments such as in the workplace, at home, at university, etc. whilst measuring their responses before and after meals. In total 9,142 responses were recorded, with 64 participants fully completing the study.

“The results provide a high degree of generalizability compared to laboratory studies, giving us a much more complete picture of how people experience the emotional outcomes of hunger in their everyday lives,” explained lead author Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University.

The daily survey questions were designed to measure self-reported levels of hunger as well as their emotional state, with questions including:

  • “How hungry are you at the moment (0 = not hungry at all, 100 = very hungry)?”
  • “How irritable do you feel at the moment (0 = not irritable at all, 100 = very irritable)?”
  • “How pleasant do you find your current state (0 = very unpleasant, 100 = very pleasant)?”
  • “When was your last meal? (__) hours ago”

Additionally, several questions were included at the beginning of the study to account for inter-individual variation in factors such as age, sex, body mass index (BMI), dietary behavior and trait anger (i.e., a person’s tendency to experience anger and to what degree).

Results – the proof is in the pudding

The results of the study suggest that hunger is indeed associated with stronger feelings of negative emotions such as anger and irritation and a reduction in ratings of pleasure. Hunger accounted for 56% of the variance in irritability, and for 48% and 44% of the variance in anger and pleasure, respectively. Therefore, these results show that hunger can have a substantial effect on our emotional state.

Furthermore, these findings remained true regardless of age, sex, BMI, dietary behaviors and trait anger – showing that the link between anger and hunger is relatively robust across multiple demographics.

“Many of us are aware that being hungry can influence our emotions, but surprisingly little scientific research has focused on being ‘hangry’,” added Swami. “Although our study doesn’t present ways to mitigate negative hunger-induced emotions, 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. Therefore, greater awareness of being ‘hangry’ could reduce the likelihood that hunger results in negative emotions and behaviors in individuals.”

The researchers did, however, address some limitations to the study. “Among other things, we didn't measure contextual factors (e.g., who respondents were with when they provided their responses), we didn't measure other emotional states (e.g., excitement, boredom), and hunger was self-reported,” elaborated Swami. The researchers also note that it will be important to replicate these findings with more diverse populations to determine how generalized these findings are, and that measuring physiological indicators of hunger such as glucose, amylase enzymes and grehlin levels may provide additional insights.

In the future, the researchers hope to apply these same methods to other topics. “Stefan [Stieger] and I are working on another study where we use the same methodology to examine the impact of everyday exposure to social media on body image outcomes,” said Swami.

Prof. Viren Swami was speaking to Sarah Whelan, Science Writer for Technology Networks

Reference: Swami V, Hochstöger S, Kargl E, Stieger S. Hangry in the field: An experience sampling study on the impact of hunger on anger, irritability, and affect. PLOS ONE. 2022;17(7):e0269629. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0269629