Hanger management

Carolina doctoral student Jennifer MacCormack studies how physical states impact human emotions. In her most recent study, she examined what makes people hangry.

Press the play button for her tips for avoiding hanger.

There’s a very fine line separating hungry and angry. Once those two states are mixed, people ride the emotional roller coaster of being full-on hangry.

Fortunately for us, Jennifer MacCormack is finding out why that happens and how to avoid becoming hangry.

A doctoral student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, MacCormack studies how physical states — like hunger — impact emotions. Her most recent research focused on what causes people to go from merely being hungry to being hangry.

“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,” MacCormack said. “The purpose of our research is to better understand the psychological mechanisms of hunger-induced emotional states — in this case, how someone becomes hangry.”

In her study, researchers first conducted two online experiments involving more than 400 individuals from the United States. Depending on the experiment, participants were shown an image designed to induce positive, neutral or negative feelings. They were then shown an ambiguous Chinese pictograph and asked to rate the image on a seven-point scale from pleasant to unpleasant. Participants were also asked to report how hungry they felt.

MacCormack’s team found that the hungrier participants were more likely to rate ambiguous Chinese pictographs as negative, but only after first being primed with a negative image. There was no effect for neutral or positive images

“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,” MacCormack said.

In a laboratory experiment involving more than 200 college students, the researchers asked the participants either to fast or eat beforehand. After some of the students were asked to complete a writing exercise designed to direct their focus on their emotions, all participants were asked to participate in a scenario designed to evoke negative emotions. Students were asked 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.

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.

“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.