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The real reason you get 'hangry' isn't what you think

If you’ve ever been accused of being “hangry” — that is, being angry as a result of hunger — it turns out you have a good excuse for it: science. New research published by the American Psychological Association found that being “hangry” is very much a real thing and is more complicated than simply a drop in blood sugar.

The study, which was published in the journal Emotion, indicates that the combination of hunger and anger is actually a complicated emotional response involving your personality, environment and biology.

“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,” lead author Jennifer MacCormack, a doctoral student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in a statement. “The purpose of our research is to better understand the psychological mechanisms of hunger-induced emotional states — in this case, how someone becomes hangry.”

According to MacCormack, there are two major factors that determine whether hunger will lead to a negative emotional response: context and self-awareness.

“You don’t just become hungry and start lashing out at the universe,” Dr. Kristen Lindquist, a psychologist and the study’s coauthor, said in a statement. “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.”

To obtain these findings, the researchers conducted two separate online experiments with more than 400 people from across the United States. In the first one, participants were shown an image that was designed to induce positive, negative or neutral feelings, then shown a Chinese pictograph (which researchers deemed to be an emotionally ambiguous image) and asked them to rate the pictograph on a seven-point scale indicating how pleasant or unpleasant they found it. They also had to report their level of hunger at the time.

The hungry participants were more likely to perceive the pictograph as negative — but only after they were first shown a negative image. Researchers didn’t observe an effect when participants were first shown positive or neutral 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,” MacCormack explained. “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.”

The second part of the research took a look at people’s emotional awareness and found that those who were more aware that their hunger is manifesting as an emotion were actually less likely to get hangry. This experiment, which involved more than 200 participants, involved them either eating or fasting before taking a writing exercise designed to make them focus on their emotions, then complete a tedious computer exercise. The computers were rigged to crash just before they were able to finish. After that, participants filled out questionnaires about their emotions and how they perceived the quality of the experiment. Not surprisingly, those who were hungry expressed feeling stressed and hateful.

“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,” MacCormack said.

Overall, the researchers aimed to highlight the mind-body connection — especially as it pertains to hunger — and in the plan to focus future studies on the impact of fatigue or inflammation on emotions.

“Our bodies play a powerful role in shaping our moment-to-moment experiences, perceptions and behaviors — whether we are hungry versus full, tired versus rested or sick versus healthy,” MacCormack said.

“This means that it’s important to take care of our bodies, to pay attention to those bodily signals and not discount them, because they matter not just for our long term mental health, but also for the day-to-day quality of our psychological experiences, social relationships and work performance.”

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