We've all heard of the term 'hangry' - when something as simple as skipping a meal can change your mood from pleasant into irrationally cranky.
But, as new research shows, 'hanger' might be more complicated than just a drop in blood sugar, and according to the researchers, it appears to be a complicated emotional response between biology, personality and environmental cues.
But is being hangry a real thing or just an excuse? “It’s generally accepted that hunger can impact our moods and even behaviours like aggression and impulsivity,” says Jennifer MacCormack, a doctoral student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), and lead author of a new study published Monday in the journal Emotion. “But we still don’t know much about the psychological mechanisms that transform hunger into feeling hangry.”
To better understand what causes it, MacCormack and her colleagues did a series of experiments and found that being in a stressful situation—and not being in tune with your emotions—may both make a person cross the line from hunger into hanger.
First, the researchers asked more than 400 people from across the country to do a few online experiments. In one, the people were shown an image that was meant to induce positive, neutral or negative feelings—like a puppy, lightbulb or snake. They were then shown an intentionally ambiguous image—in this case, a Chinese pictograph. The men and women were asked about their hunger levels and to rate the image on a scale from pleasant to unpleasant.
The hungrier the people were, the more likely they were to report that the image was unpleasant if they were shown a negative image before it. This suggests that in a negative situation, people may be more likely to experience their hunger-related feelings—aka hanger—than if they are in a pleasant or neutral situation, the researchers say.
Why We Get Hangry
The researchers found that the hungry participants felt much greater unpleasant emotions like stress and hate. However, those differences disappeared in the group that focused on their emotions beforehand, showing that by thinking about your emotions, you might be able to remove the edge off hanger.
"Simply [by] taking a step back from the present situation and recognising how you're feeling, you can still be you even when hungry," MacCormack said. There are obviously a few limitations to this study. For one, it only looked at Americans, so we can't tell if these 'hangry' issues exist across the world.
Secondly, at least in the online component, people self-reported their hunger, and you might be more likely to report that you're really hungry if you are also prone to full-on hanger. However, despite this, it is an interesting look at how our environment and personality might be more likely to make us hangry.
"Our bodies play a powerful role in shaping our moment-to-moment experiences, perceptions and behaviours - whether we are hungry versus full, tired versus rested or sick versus healthy," says MacCormack. And if you are feeling a little grumpy, take a step back and think about your emotions for a bit - it might help you from turning into a hangry mess.
Understanding hanger can also help researchers learn how “changes to hunger physiology—whether due to old age, chronic dieting, diabetes or eating disorders—could impact downstream emotions and cognitions in these populations,” MacCormack says.
More research is needed to further understand why some people can’t skip breakfast without getting miserable by lunchtime, but these studies provide initial clues.