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Food Rage: What Flips Us From Hungry To Hangry?


CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – What can turn a calm, rational person into a hungry beast? The concept of hunger and anger coming together to become “hangry” has been used so often and is attractive, the word is now even included in dictionaries.

But where exactly does the hangry begin?

Researchers at the University of North Carolina have explored the mechanisms behind this physical / emotional mystery. They say it is a result of a combination of things, and not just a fall in blood sugar levels. It is something like a pot of biology, personality and ecological signals that boil over. And if a pot viewed never boils, a good observer may be part of the remedy.

“We all know that hunger can sometimes affect our emotions and perceptions of the world around us, but it is only recently that the phrase hangry, meaning bad mood or irritable because of hunger, has been accepted by the Oxford Dictionary, “says lead author Jennifer MacCormack, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology and Neurocience at the university, in a release. “The purpose of our research is to better understand the psychological mechanisms of hunger-induced emotional states – in this case, how someone becomes hanging.”


Researchers say that it takes more than physical hunger to produce a hangier response. Two important components contribute to the physical sensation: context and self-awareness.

“Not only do you get hungry and you get thrown into the universe,” says co-author Kristen Lindquist, PhD, an assistant professor at the university. “We were all hungry, we saw the unpleasantness as hunger, had a sandwich and felt better. We notice that a hanging feeling occurs when you feel unpleasant because of hunger, but interpret those feelings as strong emotions about other people or the situation where you are. “

To find out more about the run-up to hangry, researchers have set up two online experiments with 400 participants who for the first time received an image intended to create positive, negative or neutral emotions. Then they got an ambiguous image of a Chinese icon and asked to rate it on a seven-point scale from pleasant to unpleasant. Participants also assessed their hunger level during the experiment.

The results demonstrated the impact of negative emotions on hunger. After hungry participants were exposed to negative images, they were more likely to negatively evaluate the ambiguous icons. Seeing neutral or positive priming images did not affect the rating of the icons.

“The idea here is that the negative images provide a context for people to interpret their hunger feeling as if the icons were unpleasant,” MacCormack says. “So there seems to be something special about unpleasant situations that makes people hitch their hunger more than, for example, in pleasant or neutral situations.”


But there is another element in the puzzle: self-awareness. People who are more emotionally known can notice when their hunger becomes an emotion and they go into hangry mode less quickly.

A second experiment was conducted in a laboratory environment with 200 university students. Some of the participants were asked to arrive in fasting while others had to eat beforehand. Some students were given a writing exercise that would force them to focus on their emotions. Then they all became players in a real-life scenario that certainly generated a lot of emotions.

All participants were asked to start a boring computer exercise. They did not know it was an installation, with the computers programmed to crash just before the annoying project was completed. To top it all off, one of the researchers arrived to tell the students that it was their fault that the computers crashed. Who has not experienced this fear?

The students then completed questionnaires describing their emotions and perceptions about the quality of the experiment. It is not surprising that hungry participants are more likely to report such negative emotions as stressed and resentful, even if they were not specifically focused on their own emotions. They also felt that the investigator who entered the room was harsh and judgmental.

But the participants who had spent time on their own emotional state did not experience these emotional shifts or changes in social perceptions, even when these people were hungry during the experiment.

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