Can Hunger Really Make Us “Hungry”?

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Researchers have found evidence that hunger is linked to feelings of irritability and anger. Lumina/Stocky
  • European scientists have found new evidence that supports an association between feeling hungry 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 experience 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 hunger. Anecdotal and clinical evidence shows that hunger can affect emotions and behavior.

A new study, led by scientists from the UK and Austria, examines how hunger and emotions interact in everyday life.

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

Lead author Viren Swami, professor of social psychology at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK, said the study is the first to explore being “hungry” in the everyday rather than in laboratory.

The findings appear in PLOS ONE.

Dr. Swami and his co-authors recruited 121 adults and 64 completed the study. They were between 18 and 60 years old.

Women made up 81.3% of the sample. No one answered “different” or “don’t want to answer” regarding gender identity.

The researchers used the Experimental Sampling Method (ESM), which prompted participants to complete short surveys in a semi-random fashion five times a day for 21 days. This aimed to record instantaneous accounts of experiences of hunger and emotional well-being.

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

Participants downloaded an ESM smartphone app to enter their data and ensure anonymity.

This analysis relied on self-reported assessments, which previous research points to as reliable assessments of hunger.

In an interview with Medical News TodayDr. Swami explained:

“We did not measure physiological markers of hunger. However, self-reports of hunger (i.e. how participants subjectively felt about their level of hunger) are significant in the context of emotionality. Since self-reported hunger is likely dependent on an awareness of hunger cues, it can perhaps be assumed that it reflects the extent to which the physiological effects of hunger have translated into processes of awareness and of attribution. “

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

Participants submitted details of age, nationality, current relationship status, weight, height, and education before responding to surveys.

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

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

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

Moreover, these deviations coincided with daily fluctuations in hunger and average levels of hunger over the three-week period.

The teachers said:[It] One could suggest that the experience of hunger translates into negative emotions via a range of situational cues and everyday 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 doesn’t take much for hungry people feel anger and irritability.”

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

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

In an interview marking the publication of his study, Dr. Perry said:

“We found that hungry male fruit flies display more hostility towards each other. They are more likely to aggressively pounce on each other and kick each other with their legs. (fencing behavior), and they spend more time defending food plates.

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

First, the study design made it impossible to weight “specific situational contexts” with each participant and each scenario. Additionally, using single-item measures to measure irritability and anger has not allowed scientists to explore the “potential nuances” of each experience.

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

DTM asked Dr. Swami if the study took into account mental health issues or other triggers that might have caused some participants to experience negative emotions.

The professor replied, “That was not the purpose of the study (i.e. to develop a full account of anger/irritability) and that would not have been possible anyway using a exploratory sampling method. However, we measured and controlled for the anger trait.

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

This study does not offer methods to reduce negative feelings related to hunger.

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

He hopes that “greater awareness of being ‘hungry’ could reduce the likelihood that hunger drives negative emotions and behaviors in individuals.”