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Being 'hangry' is real, and there's science to prove it

Published: 06th July, 2022 at 19:01
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Scientists tracking people's food intake and emotions have shown that being hungry really can make us angry.

It's a common phenomenon: go too long without eating, and you start to feel a little... irritated, to put it politely. Things that might not have bothered you on a full stomach now elicit clenching fists and a pulsing vein on your forehead.

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Until now, feeling 'hangry' – angry because you're hungry – has been described in a general, colloquial sense, rather than a scientific one. But when one social psychologist was told they were hangry, they decided to investigate the emotion in more detail (presumably after having a snack).

"[The research] came about partly because my wife is often saying that I'm hangry, but I didn't think being hangry was real," said Professor Viren Swami, the study's lead author at Anglia Ruskin University. "But mainly because I'm interested in the impact of hunger and eating on human emotions and behaviours."

Swami and colleagues are the first to study the feeling of hanger specifically, but previous research in lab settings has pointed to links between hunger and mood.

"In some non-human species, food deprivation has been shown to increase motivations to engage in aggression to gain food resources," said Swami. "In humans, hunger has been examined in relation to mood and behavioural difficulties, especially in children, but results have been mixed."

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For the new study, 64 adults from central Europe were asked to record their emotions and their hunger levels at several points throughout their day. Over a three-week period, the researchers found that fluctuations in anger, irritability and unpleasantness were strongly linked with hunger.

In fact, hunger was responsible for 34 per cent of the variation in feelings of anger for participants. For feelings of irritability, hunger was 37 per cent responsible.

Swami’s study showed this link, but the exact reason hunger makes us more irritable is still unknown.

Some suggestions have been made – it could be linked to low blood glucose levels, which have been shown in previous experiments to increase impulsivity and aggression. Or, the lack of food could affect a person's self-control and regulation, which some say triggers negative emotions like anger. But the current study focused on finding the link, not the reason for it being there.

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As for those who get hangry, Swami said greater awareness of the feeling itself could reduce the likelihood that hunger results in negative emotions and behaviours in individuals.

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“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 recognising that we feel angry simply because we are hungry," said Swami.

Authors

Amy BarrettEditorial Assistant, BBC Science Focus

Amy is the Editorial Assistant at BBC Science Focus. Her BA degree specialised in science publishing and she has been working as a journalist since graduating in 2018. In 2020, Amy was named Editorial Assistant of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors. She looks after all things books, culture and media. Her interests range from natural history and wildlife, to women in STEM and accessibility tech.

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