Science Says Feeling 'Hangry' Is A Real Emotion, So There

by Julie Scagell
Image via Getty Images/ djedzura

Science finally nails why hunger turns into hanger

We’ve all seen or experienced ourselves that zero to 100 emotional rollercoaster that comes when we’ve waited too long to eat. It can cause a range of emotions, from frustration to downright “I’m going to stab this pen through my own eyeball if someone doesn’t feed me immediately.” Also known as being “hangry”

Luckily, for those of us who experience the latter quite frequently, science may finally be able to explain why hunger-induced anger happens.

Jennifer MacCormack, a psychology and neuroscience doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill wanted to understand exactly why hunger triggers hangriness in some people. What she and a team of researchers found was that two key factors, context and self-awareness, play a significant role in hunger turning into hanger.

They conducted two experiments to find out how hunger can overtake a person’s emotions. In one, MacCormack had two groups of undergraduates — one who’d been required to fast for five hours and one group who ate right before — come into her lab, with the sole purpose of annoying them. “Psych 101 students, bless their heart,” she tells NPR. “They didn’t know this was a study about feeling hangry.” Both groups participated in long and complex computer exercises “involving colored circles, only to have ‘the blue screen of death’ show up.”

In another, MacCormack had people look at positive, negative, or neutral pictures, such as a cute kitty, a snarling dog, or a rock. What she found was that when “hungry or sated people looked at positive or neutral pictures, they didn’t feel any strong emotional shift in any direction. But when hungry people looked at negative images, they reacted much more strongly than those who had eaten recently.”

The findings, which were published in the journal Emotion, suggest that hunger alone isn’t enough to make someone hangry. “It’s context,” Elizabeth Davis, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside says. “Hungry people need to be in some negative situation or subject to negative stimuli before they start feeling hangry.”

Unless you’re my husband, who believes any amount of hunger represents a seismic shift in the universe meant to torture him and him alone.

Davis also says based on MacCormack’s findings, people are less likely to become hangry if they are aware of their emotions. “Hunger makes us slightly unhappy to begin with, but we might not always realize that our mood is shifting.” Hunger “signals to us that something is wrong — that it’s time to eat,” she continues. “But as humans, we may misattribute that aversive feeling to something external before we look into what our body is telling us.”

Try telling that to a hungry person.

So, basically a person needs to be in touch with their emotions in a positive environment full of rainbows and unicorns and their hunger won’t turn to hanger. Perhaps never leaving the house without a Snickers bar in your purse is a more realistic alternative.