We take hangryness seriously in our family and carry snacks. Irritable for no reason? Whining from the back seat? Snark out of left field? Offended over something innocuous? Well, when was the last time we ate? Is it time for lunch? What happened to the snacks?! 

Whether we intended to we’ve made a connection between hunger and emotion: to be hungry is to be bad tempered or irritable as a result of hunger. There is a small body of research that demonstrates that people who are in a glucose-depleted state because they have not eaten are more impulsive, punitive and aggressive. What we don't understand is why? Why are we psychologically inclined toward being mad, sad, and grumpy when we're hungry?

One idea has been that hunger is tied to self-regulation. When people are hungry the constraints that typically keep emotions in check are released. They may be more inclined to make impulsive decisions and be aggressive toward others. Known as the regulatory depletion hypothesis, this idea proposes that mental effort can deplete blood glucose levels, and negative emotions occur because individuals experience less self-control when glucose is depleted.

At first blush, it makes sense but there are couple of problems with this theory. The first is that it's unlikely that the you're thinking yourself into depleted glucose levels to the degree necessary to induce a hangry state. Second, attempts to replicate findings to support the regulatory depletion hypothesis have not been wholly or satisfactorily successful. 

So how do we explain hangryness? Interestingly, we also know that when someone is hungry, the areas of their brain that are activated are the same  regions that are activated when affect and emotions are triggered. This suggests that despite these two states being distinct, there may be similar neural processes involved. So to better understand hangryness, emotions may hold the key. Emotions are mental events. They occur because the brain is using prior experiences and its categorization of knowledge to guide the interpretation and response to affect signals from the body. This means that if you encounter a situation for the first time, your brain reads your body’s signals to the event to determine how you should respond. This doesn't mean that blood sugar levels have no impact on emotions. In fact, when blood sugar drops, the hormone that signals hunger triggers the release of other hormones (like cortisol) which act on the sympathetic nervous system prompting a negative bodily response. The emptiness in your stomach may cause you discomfort, for example, and this negative affect may translate into degrees of irritation ranging from annoyance to flat out hunger.

This range of responses is tied to what we choose to emphasize from the stimuli we are exposed to. A recent study demonstrates how our attention can direct our affective states:
  • In one study, individuals were shown negative and neutral image to establish an emotional context, and then shown Chinese pictograph. the pictograph was not related to the images shown initially. Hungrier individuals were more likely to rate the pictograph negatively when shown a negative contextual image.
  • Another study repeated the above and introduced a positive contextual image. The results were the same, with little to no negative response in relation to neutral or positive images. 
  • And a third study found that when an individual is made aware of his emotions in a negative interpersonal exchange, such as an argument, he is less likely to conceptualize hunger as an emotion—this suggests that being angry as a result of hunger isn’t an established connection.
Researchers suggest that hangryness is an extension of this focus. People don’t immediately connect the physiological responses of being hungry with the negative affect they are experiencing; they are more likely to look outward and blame that negative affect on the most contextually relevant factor they can identify. For example, the person who cut them in line, a customer service representation who takes too long to propose a solution, or the dust that triggers an allergy attack may be cited as reasons for an outburst.

Hunger does alter affect but, socially and culturally, we make this meaningful. We have coded this response into our behaviors and deploy it as an explanation for negative interactions. The findings suggest that self-awareness offsets the immediate negative responses that embody hungriness. When we label our emotions, it can have a dampening effect. The challenge is that in these moments we less likely to be self-aware. Our focus is on the external target where we are orienting our discomfort. The implications are that when this is unchecked it can have a larger impact on our social groups as we make riskier decisions and display avoidance tendencies in these cases.

So what can we do? We can’t escape the physiological responses we experience when we are hungry, but from a social perspective, addressing unfounded negative responses is one place to start. For example, asking a person—or a small child—“Can you tell me why you’re angry?” may prompt them to say, “I think I’m hungry.” Is it guaranteed? No, which is why you should still carry snacks. But it does serve as a reminder of how many behaviors we sanction socially and how these behaviors can come together to generate a norm.

How do you combat hanger? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
MacCormack, J. K., & Lindquist, K. A. (2018). Feeling hangry? When hunger is conceptualized as emotion. Emotion.
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