There’s a difference between being hungry—a feeling we all get between meals – and being ‘hangry’. If you get hangry, you probably already know it: your hunger pangs put you in a very bad mood that you (and your family and friends) have a hard time ignoring.
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.
The researchers carried out experiments on more than 400 Americans to draw their conclusions.
Depending on the experiment, participants were shown an image designed to induce positive, neutral or negative feelings. They were then shown an ambiguous image, a Chinese pictograph, and asked to rate the pictograph on a seven-point scale from pleasant to unpleasant. Participants were also asked to report how hungry they felt.
The researchers found that the hungrier the participants were, the more likely they were to rate the Chinese pictographs as negative, but only after first being primed with a negative image. There was no effect for neutral or positive images.
“The idea here is that the negative images provided a context for people to interpret their hunger feelings as meaning the pictographs were unpleasant,” said MacCormack.
“So there seems to be something special about unpleasant situations that makes people draw on their hunger feelings more than, say, in pleasant or neutral situations,” she added
As well as these environmental cues, how hangry a person feels is affected by their level of emotional awareness – if you’re more aware that your hunger is manifesting as an emotion, you’re less likely to feel hangry.
In a second experiment, researchers found that hungry individuals reported greater unpleasant emotions like feeling stressed and hateful when they were not explicitly focused on their own emotions. They also expressed more negative feelings towards others.
“Despite the colloquial term ‘hanger,’ we found that this effect was not specific to anger,” says study co-author Kristen Lindquist.
“People in our studies were more likely to feel intense negativity in general when they were hungry and something bad happened – suggesting that feeling hungry can turn up the dial on lots of negative emotions such as anger, stress or disgust.”
Insights like these may help people prevent themselves from getting hangry. “Although we all get hungry, there’s surprising variability in appetite, how long people can go without eating and how good people are at noticing their hunger cues,” says MacCormack. “By better understanding the factors that lead us to become hangry, we can give people the tools to recognise when hunger is impacting their feelings and behaviours.”
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.