Some lab-based work has suggested we can become more irritable when we are hungry – now the phenomenon has been seen in the real-world too
6 July 2022
Most people know the feeling of being so hungry that it starts to make them angry – there is even a word for it, being “hangry”. Now, the first study to measure this phenomenon in the real world has found there really is a link between appetite and emotions.
“The hungrier you are, the more likely it is that you will also feel irritability and anger, and experience less pleasure,” says Viren Swami at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, UK. “It’s a robust, valid effect.”
Most previous work on the connections between hunger and anger in people has been done in the laboratory, but Swami and his team wanted to see how strong the effect is in people as they go about their lives.
To find out, they asked 64 people from Germany, Austria and some other countries to use a phone app to fill in some short surveys about their emotions and how hungry they were five times every day for three weeks.
Sure enough, there was a correlation between people’s hunger levels and their self-reported feelings of irritability and anger. When they were hungrier, they also felt less pleasure.
The effect size was large: hunger pangs were associated with 56 per cent of the variance in feelings of irritability, for instance.
“It’s likely that when you’re feeling hungry, you’re more likely to interpret [potentially] negative contextual cues as negative,” says Swami. Such cues could include feeling hot or being bumped by people in a crowded place, he says.
This might be because low blood sugar triggers the release of hormones such as adrenaline, which triggers the fight-or-flight response, and cortisol, which raises stress levels, says Deanne Jade at the National Centre for Eating Disorders in the UK, who is a member of the British Psychological Society. “Many of us are very sensitive to stress hormones,” she says. “We become overfocused on things. We can feel very twitchy.”
But surveys carried out using phone apps, such as the ones in this study, could potentially influence what they are trying to measure, says Swami. “One of the things we thought might have been triggering the anger might have been receiving the text to say, ‘please complete the survey’.”
Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0269629
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