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 behaviors 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.
In another study, the researchers asked some 200 college students to either eat or fast before they came into the lab. Some of the students were asked to complete a writing exercise about their emotions and others wrote about a neutral, everyday experience. All of them were then subjected to a stressful situation; they were asked to do a project on computer programmed to crash right before they finished it. At the moment of the malfunction, a researcher entered the room and blamed the student for the computer trouble.
The students were then asked to fill out questionnaires asking them about their emotions and the quality of the experiment. The students who hadn’t eaten were more likely to report feeling stressed and hateful if they had not done the writing exercise focusing on their emotions. They were also more likely to describe the researcher as harsh and judgmental.
On the other hand, the students who had spent time thinking about emotions were much less likely to report feeling bad or resenting the researchers—even if they were in the group that fasted before the study. This implied, to the researchers, that people who are less aware of their emotional states may be more likely to react with hanger.
“Despite the colloquial term ‘hanger,’ we found that this effect was not specific to anger,” says study co-author Kristen Lindquist, an assistant professor in Psychology & Neuroscience at UNC. “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 recognize when hunger is impacting their feelings and behaviors.”
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.