If you notice yourself getting short-tempered on the commute home or when your dinner gets delayed at a restaurant, you may be experiencing "hanger" — hunger-induced anger.
The word was introduced to the Oxford English Dictionary earlier this year, but it's something many of us have experienced for years. Now, scientists believe they've finally worked out why a rumbling stomach can often lead to rage.
"It's generally accepted that hunger can impact our moods and even behaviours like aggression and impulsivity," says Jennifer MacCormack, lead author of a study published in the journal Emotion on Monday. "But we still don't know much about the psychological mechanisms that transform hunger into feeling hangry."
The team of researchers from the University of North Carolina analysed the psychology behind hanger and found it's more complex than a simple drop in blood sugar. They suggest we experience hanger when hunger makes us less resilient to stresses in our external environment. The problem is, we're terrible at separating the situation from our rumbling stomachs.
"You don't just become hungry and start lashing out at the universe," the study's co-author, assistant professor Kristen Lindquist, explained. "We've all felt hungry, recognised 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."
But the good news is there may be a way to stop ourselves from biting someone's head off when we really just need a bite to eat. It all comes down to self-awareness and learning to recognise the source of our discomfort.
The researchers conducted a series of experiments to investigate the links between mood and hunger. In one, more than 200 university students were asked to either fast or eat before taking part in a test. Some of the students were also told to complete a writing exercise designed to direct their focus on their emotions.
All of the students were then tasked to complete a "tedious exercise" on a computer that, unbeknownst to them, was programmed to crash just before it could be completed. One of the researchers then came into the room and blamed the student for the computer crash.
Participants were then asked to fill out questionnaires on their emotions and their perception of the quality of the experiment. The researchers found that hungry individuals reported greater unpleasant emotions like feeling stressed and hateful when they were not explicitly focused on their own emotions. These individuals also thought that the researcher conducting the experiment was more judgmental or harsh. Participants who spent time thinking about their emotions, even when hungry, did not report these shifts in emotions or social perceptions.
The researchers concluded our personal level of emotional awareness can make a difference to the way we experience hanger. They said people who are more aware that their hunger is manifesting as an emotion are less likely to become angry. So if you feel your inner Hulk making a pre-lunch appearance, take a moment to connect with your emotions and divide hunger from anger.
"A well-known commercial once said, 'You're not you when you're hungry,' lead MacCormack said, referencing a Snickers advert. "But our data hint that by simply taking a step back from the present situation and recognising how you're feeling, you can still be you even when hungry."