Scientists Discover Why Hunger Makes Us ‘Hangry’

Turns out it’s not really your belly at fault.

By Ethan L. Johns
June 13, 2018

Image: Shutterstock

Now that “hangry” is officially a word in the dictionary, it’s legitimate enough to warrant scientific study—or so believes a group of researchers from the University of North Carolina that published their findings on Monday in the journal Emotion.

Curious as to whether or not hunger actually causes feelings of anger, the team devised a multi-part study in an attempt to discover just how somebody becomes hangry.

They started out by sitting down 400 people in front of a computer, where participants were shown either an image of a kitten (positive), a rock (neutral) or an angry dog (negative). They were then shown a Chinese pictogram and were asked to interpret it using a scale ranging from pleasant to unpleasant. Participants also reported their level of hunger.

Those who felt hungrier and were shown the angry dog tended to rate the pictogram as unpleasant, insinuating to researchers that existing negativity contributed to negative interpretations later on.

They then tested this theory again in-person on a group of 200 UNC students. Leading up to their appointments, some participants fasted, while others ate. Upon arrival, some were asked to write a short essay analyzing their emotions. Then, all participants were subjected to an uncomfortable and repetitive exercise on a computer that was designed to crash right before the end.

The researcher then showed up and blamed the computer crash on the participant, before asking them to complete a survey dealing with emotion and satisfaction.

The hungry participants who had written about their emotions earlier were a bit thrown by the experiment, but the hungry participants who hadn’t done any emotional reflection were angry and felt that the researcher hated them.

“You don’t just become hungry and start lashing out at the universe,” said co-author Kristen Lindquist, PhD, in a statement. “We find that feeling hangry happens when you feel unpleasantness due to hunger but interpret those feelings as strong emotions about other people or the situation you’re in.”

So does hunger really make us angry? Evidence suggests that hunger puts us on edge, but it’s our interpretation of a situation that makes us angry. The cure to hanger? Recognizing that you’re hungry and remembering that you’ll feel much better when you get something into that belly.

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About Ethan L. Johns

Ethan is the Food News Writer at Genius Kitchen. An expert on the Parisian bistrot, he likes bitters and salted butters, and is no fan of dessert unless it's made with fruit. His hobbies include reading up on the history of borscht and attempting to roll perfect couscous by hand. Twits & Instagram @EthanLJohns