For those who get snappy when they miss out on lunch, it may be the perfect excuse: researchers have confirmed that a lack of food makes otherwise bearable people “hangry”.
In one of the first studies to explore how hunger affects emotions as people go about their daily lives, psychologists found that the more hungry people felt, the more angry – or hangry – they became.
The study came about after Prof Viren Swami, a social psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University, was told – on more than one occasion – that he was hangry and should do something about it. The challenge left him wondering if being hangry was a real phenomenon.
Working with researchers in Austria and Malaysia, Swami recruited 64 adults aged 18 to 60 to record their emotions and feelings of hunger five times a day for three weeks. While the relationship between hunger and emotions has been studied in labs, the volunteers monitored their feelings as they went about their daily routines.
Writing in the journal Plos One, the psychologists describe how hunger was associated with stronger feelings of anger and irritability and lower levels of pleasure. “It turns out that being hangry is a real thing,” said Swami.
The study does not propose any radical solutions, but Swami believes that being able to recognise and label the emotion can itself be of help. “A lot of the time, we might be aware of what we are feeling but not understand the cause of it. If we can label it, we are better able to do something about it,” he said.
Researchers have a number of hypotheses that aim to explain why hunger can take charge of our emotions. One is based on studies that suggest low blood sugar increases impulsivity, anger and aggression. But it is not clear whether such loss of self-control can arise from small drops in blood glucose. Another proposes that when people are hungry, they are more likely to see the world through irritable eyes.
Regardless of the mechanism, Swami believes the study raises a serious point: children who go hungry to school are less likely to learn effectively, and more likely to have behavioural problems, so ensuring pupils are properly fed must be a priority. “It’s really important to be able to identify emotions like being hangry so we can mitigate against the negative effects,” he said.
For adults who find their social skills plummet after skipping lunch, the advice is straightforward: “Don’t go hungry,” Swami said. “Though for a lot of people that is easier said than done.”