Science Explains Why You Get Hangry
Why some people become emotional monsters when they’re hungry
Megan Hess, a social media manager at a central Pennsylvania non-profit, says she’s a pretty chipper person the majority of the time. But when she gets hungry, she says, “I can’t deal with anybody’s crap.”
She can tell when the feeling is coming — “I’m like, ‘Oh, man, the hanger’s here,’” she says — and while she is an inveterate grazer, it still occasionally turns things pear-shaped. She and her manager still joke about the time she accidentally filmed an entire event upside down after finding herself hungry and unarmed with a snack. “Even if it’s not technically in my job description, I feel like it’s part of my job that I have to stay pretty well fed,” she says.
Everyone gets hungry sometimes, and everybody gets angry sometimes, but not everyone is equally susceptible to getting hangry. Hanger is a physical sensation of hunger combined with negative emotion, usually anger or frustration. Often the afflicted say they feel angry because they are hungry.
Jennifer MacCormack, a doctoral candidate in social psychology at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill (UNC), says hanger is the interplay of interoception — an individual’s ability to sense things happening in their body — and the environmental context in which the hunger takes place.
MacCormack and her advisor, Kristen Lindquist, an associate professor in UNC’s psychology and neuroscience department, conducted three experiments to examine the link between hunger and emotion. The results were published in a 2018 paper in the journal Emotion. In the study, people were asked to view and judge a series of neutral images, then rate their hunger levels. Hungry people only judged the images negatively when they were immediately preceded by an unpleasant, highly emotionally arousing image — a picture of a snarling dog, for example. Equally emotionally arousing positive images did not produce the same effect in hungry people, and the negative images didn’t have an effect on the judgment of people who weren’t hungry. To MacCormack and Lindquist, the combination of findings suggests that hunger is only a potent shaper of people’s emotions when it happens in a negative environmental context. In other words, hunger is far more likely to become hanger when it strikes during a traffic jam than when it’s present during a gathering with friends.
Why this happens is not entirely clear, but MacCormack says it may have to do with the fact that the same parts of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex, insula, and amygdala — are activated when a person experiences hunger as when they experience heightened emotional states like anger. She hopes neuroimaging studies will eventually help scientists like her better understand the biological underpinnings of the relationship between hunger and emotion.
Not every hungry person has the potential to devolve into hanger. That’s because some people are more likely to notice their bodies’ hunger signals than others. Those highly interoceptive people who are aware of early hunger signals can act on them before the hunger is overwhelming.
MacCormack is her own best example of the link between interoception and hanger: “I just don’t have great body awareness,” she says. She often does not even realize she’s hungry until she’s experiencing “low blood sugar — really intense kind of physiological side effects of the hunger,” accompanied by increased reactivity and irritability.
Research suggests that individual differences in interoception are a mix of nature and nurture. A study of 300 identical twin pairs found that genetics contributed to 37% of a person’s body self-awareness, suggesting that other environmental and personal factors play a large role in interoception.
Among those other factors is mindfulness: In a study of people with Type 2 diabetes, people who had higher self-reported levels of mindfulness were more accurate at estimating their blood sugar levels, and a recent meta-analysis demonstrated a small but measurable relationship between mindfulness meditation practice and higher body awareness. Athletes also have higher levels of interoception, perhaps because maximizing their performance depends on their ability to differentiate between overexertion and injury.
Everyone gets hungry sometimes, and everybody gets angry sometimes, but not everyone is equally susceptible to getting hangry.
A history of disordered eating patterns can cross the wires of hunger and context, resulting in poor interoception. “Once people are chronic dieters, that totally changes the way that the body creates a sense of hunger,” physiologically and subjectively, says MacCormack; when hunger feels like a victory, learning to interpret the sensation as a stimulus to eat requires sustained effort.
People with obesity also often have decreased interoception, although which causes the other is unclear to MacCormack. “That’s kind of a chicken and egg question for me,” she says: While poor body perception could lead to ignoring satiety cues and overeating, it’s also possible overeating changes how those satiety cues are sent or perceived.
There are still more questions than answers about the physiological underpinnings of hanger. Not enough is known about how hunger and interoception interact to make conclusive statements about sex differences, says MacCormack, and scientists have not yet identified hanger’s genetic signature. An emerging body of literature suggests individual variations in the hunger hormone ghrelin and other appetite-stimulating hormones may also be tied to individual differences in the timing and acuity of hunger. Leaner people and women experiencing social stressors like isolation, interpersonal conflicts, and low social status all appear to have higher ghrelin secretion, and ghrelin naturally fluctuates throughout the day, peaking mid-morning for most people if they do not eat breakfast. The relationship between female reproductive hormones and ghrelin is unclear, although MacCormack says data from some rodent studies seem to suggest a relationship between the two.
Hess’ propensity to get hangry doesn’t seem to vary much; she’s been this way her whole life, she says. Her mother is the same way. “Even today, we’ll go to church and she’ll have a granola bar in her purse and eat it during the sermon if she’s hungry,” she says. Hess has likewise adapted to her body’s needs, stashing snacks on her person and her desk at work (alongside a small sign reading, “Life happens; CANDY HELPS”).
Knowing you’re predisposed to hanger can help you avoid it, says MacCormack. She recommends sidestepping hunger altogether by regularly eating foods rich in protein or long-lasting energy and setting a phone reminder if you find yourself forgetting to eat. Once hunger strikes, eat as soon as you can, she says, and find ways to inject positivity into your environment by listening to your favorite music or podcast or taking a moment to stretch and breathe deeply.
Fundamentally, learning to notice how hunger impacts your interpersonal reactions can create powerful opportunities for behavior change. “This awareness can also be helpful in relationships,” says MacCormack, “Not as an excuse for bad behavior, but as a moment when you can apologize or try to recognize how your reactions are probably less about the other person and more about how hungry you feel.”