A new study finds that being “hangry” — a term used to indicate hunger-induced anger — may be a complicated emotional response involving an interplay of biology, environmental cues and one’s level of emotional awareness.

The research is published in the journal Emotion.

“We all know that hunger can sometimes affect our emotions and perceptions of the world around us, but it’s only recently that the expression hangry, meaning bad-tempered or irritable because of hunger, was accepted by the Oxford Dictionary,” said lead author Jennifer MacCormack, M.A., a doctoral student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“The purpose of our research is to better understand the psychological mechanisms of hunger-induced emotional states — in this case, how someone becomes hangry.”

When a person is hungry, there are two key things that determine if that hunger will contribute to negative emotions or not, according to MacCormack: context and self-awareness.

“You don’t just become hungry and start lashing out at the universe,” said assistant professor Kristen Lindquist, Ph.D., the study’s co-author.

“We’ve all felt hungry, recognized the unpleasantness as hunger, had a sandwich and felt better. We find that feeling hangry happens when you feel unpleasantness due to hunger but interpret those feelings as strong emotions about other people or the situation you’re in.”

The first part of the research included two online experiments involving more than 400 participants from the United States. Depending on the experiment, the individuals 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 also reported how hungry they were feeling.

The findings show that the hungrier participants were more likely to rate the ambiguous 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.”

But it’s not just environmental cues that can influence a person to go from hungry to hangry, according to MacCormack. A person’s level of emotional awareness is also important. People who are more aware that their hunger is manifesting as an emotion are less likely to become hangry.

Next, the researchers conducted a lab experiment involving more than 200 university students. The participants were asked to either fast or eat beforehand. After some of the participants were asked to engage in a writing exercise designed to direct their focus on their emotions, all of the participants underwent a scenario designed to evoke negative emotions.

The participants were asked to complete a tedious computer exercise that, unbeknownst to them, was programmed to crash just before it was completed. One of the researchers then entered the room and blamed the student for the computer crash.

Next, the students were told to fill out questionnaires on their emotions and their perception of the quality of the experiment. The findings reveal that hungry participants reported greater unpleasant emotions like feeling stressed and hateful when they were not explicitly focused on their own emotions. These individuals also reported that the researcher conducting the experiment was more judgmental or harsh.

However, students who had spent time thinking about their emotions, even when hungry, did not report these shifts in emotions or social perceptions.

“A well-known commercial once said, ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry,’ but our data hint that by simply taking a step back from the present situation and recognizing how you’re feeling, you can still be you even when hungry,” said MacCormack.

Source: American Psychological Association