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July 19, 2018
by Elizabeth Pratt

Being Hangry May Actually be a Complex Emotional Response

July 19, 2018 08:00 by Elizabeth Pratt  [About the Author]

We’ve all been there; you’re going about your day and you’re hungry. Suddenly every little thing annoys you, you become irritable, you snap. You’re “hangry” (that’s hungry and angry for the uninitiated). 

The term hangry was accepted by the Oxford dictionary and is defined as being “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger”. You may have seen advertisements for candy bars declaring that ‘you’re not you when you’re hungry’. It turns out there may actually be some truth in that. According to research from the American Psychological Association, transitioning from just hungry to “hangry” may be much more complex than a drop in blood sugar. It may actually be an emotional response that takes into account personality, biology and even cues from the environment.  

Jennifer MacCormack, a doctoral student in the psychology department at University of North Carolina Chapel Hill undertook research to try and understand what she describes as the psychological mechanisms resulting from hunger-induced emotional states.

MacCormack and her colleagues conducted two experiments with more than 400 participants in the United States. Participants were shown images that were expected to cause a positive, negative or neutral reaction. Participants were then shown a Chinese character and were asked to rate it on a scale from unpleasant to pleasant. Finally, participants were asked to share how hungry they were at the time of undertaking the experiment.  

The results of the experiment showed that the participants who reported being hungry  were more likely to rank the Chinese character as negative if they had earlier been shown a negative image. MacCormack says the negative images created a context in which the hungry people interpreted their feelings of hunger by then ranking the Chinese characters as unpleasant. This suggests in unpleasant situations people are more likely to draw on their hungry feelings for a negative outcome. 

Not everyone who is hungry will become hangry. Whether this occurs depends on two factors: context and self-awareness.

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

A person’s emotional awareness also contributes to whether they transition from just hungry to hangry. Those who are aware that their hunger is causing them to have an emotional response are less likely to become hangry than those who are unaware of their hunger related emotions. 

To put this to the test, the researchers enlisted 200 university students and asked them either to eat or fast before the experiment. Some students were asked to undertake an exercise that would focus their emotions. Then all of the participants participated in a scenario that would spark negative emotions; the students were asked to complete a dull task on a computer that was programmed to crash right before the students could complete the task, a research who was in on the scenario then entered the room and blamed the students for the crash.

After the experiment, the students were asked to fill out a survey detailing their emotions and their thoughts on the study. The students who were hungry reported a greater level of negative emotions such as stress and hate. They also thought the researcher conducting the task was harsh or judgmental.

The participants who were asked at the beginning of the exercise to focus on their emotions did not report an increase in negative emotions, even if they were hungry.

MacCormack says this suggests that stepping back from a situation and recognizing your emotions means you can stop yourself from becoming hangry. 

So next time you feel yourself descending into a rage… stop for a moment and  acknowledge how you’re feeling. It may stop you becoming hangry. And if that fails? Maybe try a Snickers. 

About the Author

Elizabeth Pratt

Elizabeth Pratt is a medical journalist and producer. Her work has appeared on Healthline, The Huffington Post, Fox News, The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, The Sydney Morning Herald,, Escape, The Cusp and Skyscanner. You can read more of her articles here. Or learn more about Elizabeth and contact her via her LinkedIn and Twitter profiles.

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