In 2018 the word “hangry,” the portmanteau of hungry and angry, was finally added to the Oxford English Dictionary. We say finally because the concept had been around for a while. Katherine Connor Martin, Head of Product for Oxford Languages, said its first appearance in print was in a psychoanalytic journal in 1956. It is hard to imagine that any parent of a toddler throughout the ages has not come to the conclusion that hungry humans are prone to irritability. Even Snickers® candy bars’ highly successful “You’re not you when you’re hungry” marketing campaign premiered more than a decade ago, bringing being hangry into mainstream vernacular.
While there has been some lab-based research, there had not been a real-world evidence study monitoring humans going about their daily lives until recently. Professor Viren Swami, a social psychologist at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, England, was inspired to do the research after he had been told, on multiple occasions, that he was obviously hangry and should eat something. Working with researchers in Austria and Malaysia, Swami conducted a 21-day “experience sampling method-” based research study of 64 participants and their mood in relation to their hunger. These participants, ages 18-60 years old, were given the task to keep track of their hunger levels while additionally keeping an account of their anger, irritability, pleasure and arousal. Participants tracked their moods five times each day, providing a total of 9,142 accounts as a basis for the study.
Following the three-week experiment, the researchers found that, for individuals going about their daily routines, higher levels of anger and irritability and lower levels of pleasure were correlated with the duration of time that they went without a meal. Even after accounting for gender, age, body mass index and dietary behaviors, these findings remained significant. Participants expressed more extreme “negative” emotions such as anger and displeasure when not following their normal eating patterns.
In the publication of their findings, Swami and his colleagues acknowledge that, although research that seeks to understand the impact of hunger on negative emotions is progressing, much of this research remains limited to laboratory-based methodologies. As noted in the publication, “Although laboratory-based, experimental work is crucial in terms of being able to infer causality and to better understand mechanistic pathways, they are also limited in terms [of] measurement occasions (i.e., all such studies use a pre- and post-intervention method, with no longer-term follow-up or no measurement at multiple time-points). Such studies may also be limited in terms of their ecological validity; that is, laboratory-based work may not fully replicate the experience and manifestation of hunger in everyday settings. In contrast, there is now greater interest in the way in which affective experiences occur in everyday settings, especially given the variability of experiences that can be tied to situation-specific needs.”
So, what’s the lasting impact of the results of Swami’s research? As a social psychologist, Swami is thinking about the practical application of this knowledge. Studies have noted that children who arrive at school hungry do not learn as effectively, but this study may lead one to consider other implications of hunger in school settings as it relates to disruptive and aggressive behavior. It should be noted that the study did not include school-age children, but the research may still be regarded as an additional reason to continue programs that provide free or subsidized breakfasts and lunches during the school day.
As companies are acknowledging the importance of work/life balance in maintaining an engaged and productive workforce, the lunch break should be equally prioritized. Providing employees an adequate amount of time to eat as well as access to balanced meals can ensure they are able to think, collaborate and work at their best.
According to Swami, simply raising people’s awareness of the correlation between hunger and irritability, as well as knowing the signs of hunger (which can vary from one person to another) provides the tools people need to better regulate their moods. Just as parents of toddlers have learned to keep Goldfish® crackers handy in case of an emotional breakdown, perhaps we should all keep a nutritious snack close at hand and be sure to have a complete breakfast on days when we know our ability to work well with others may be put to the test.
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