Have you ever been grumpy, only to realize that you’re hungry?
Many people feel more irritable, annoyed, or negative when hungry — an experience colloquially called being “hangry.” The idea that hunger affects our feelings and behaviors is widespread — from advertisements to memes and merchandise. But surprisingly little research investigates how feeling hungry transforms into feeling hangry.
Psychologists have traditionally thought of hunger and emotions as separate, with hunger and other physical states as basic drives with different physiological and neural underpinnings from emotions. But growing scientific evidence suggests that your physical states can shape your emotions and cognition in surprising ways.
Prior studies show that hunger itself can influence mood, likely because it activates many of the same bodily systems, like the autonomic nervous system and hormones, that are involved in emotion. For example, when you’re hungry, your body releases a host of hormones including cortisol and adrenaline, often associated with stress. The result is that hunger, especially at greater intensity, can make you feel more tense, unpleasant, and primed for action — due to how these hormones make you feel.
But is feeling hangry just these hunger-induced feelings or is there more to it? This question inspired the studies that psychologist Kristen Lindquist and I conducted at UNC-Chapel Hill. We wanted to know whether hunger-induced feelings can transform how people experience their emotions and the world around them.
Negative situations set the scene for hanger
An idea in psychology known as affect-as-information theory holds that your mood can temporarily shape how you see the world. In this way, when you’re hungry, you may view things in a more negative light than when you’re not hungry. But here’s the twist.
People are most likely to be guided by their feelings when they’re not paying attention to them. This suggests that people may become hangry when they aren’t actively focused on their internal feelings, but instead wrapped up in the world around them, such as that terrible driver or that customer’s rude comment.
To test whether hungry people are more likely to become hangry in negative situations when they aren’t focused on their feelings, we designed three different studies. In the first two, run online with US adults, we asked people — some hungry, some full — to look at negative, positive, and neutral emotional images. Then they saw an ambiguous figure: a Chinese character or pictograph they’d never seen before. We asked participants whether they thought the pictograph meant something pleasant or unpleasant.