Here’s the good news: Recent research published in the journal Emotion shows that ‘hanger’ — anger linked to hunger pangs — really is a verifiable hormonal phenomenon. The problem is that you’re probably very bad at differentiating between “real” anger and the anger that comes from your stomach.
In the paper, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers describe their experiments quantifying the experience of “hanger,” a word that was just added to the Oxford English Dictonary in 2015 but resonates with anyone who has ever attempted intermittent fasting. Previous research had already shown that drops in blood sugar due to hunger can trigger the release of hormones associated with stress, like cortisol, but this study investigated how this process can affect higher orders of cognition, like emotion. “What’s really interesting is that some hormones…often play a role in emotions — often highly activated, unpleasant emotions like stress, anger, and anxiety,” study co-author and sociologist Jennifer McCormack, Ph.D. tells Inverse. “So that suggests that hunger is literally generating a very basic emotional or affective feeling of being negative or unpleasant.” So, McCormack and study co-author Kristen A. Lindquist, Ph.D. set out to determine how hunger creates hanger in the first place.
It turns out that the hunger-related hormones aren’t entirely to blame for hanger. In the first two trials, the team showed 250 Amazon workers two pictures: first, one of an angry-looking German Shepherd to create a “negative context,” and then, another of a “neutral” Chinese pictograph. Some of the workers were hungry, while others were well fed. Finding that the hungry participants were only likely to see the pictograph as “negative” when they were primed by the dog picture beforehand, the team hypothesized that the participants were unknowingly inferring negative context on a neutral situation, in part, because of their hormonal responses to their hunger. Social context, it appears, can shape hanger.
They dived deeper into the role of social context in the third study, in which they put subjects through a series of frustrating experiences with the researchers and then asked the subjects to report how they felt. Hungry subjects, they found, were likely to report emotions like “hate” or perceive that their researcher was being “judgmental.” This supported their observation that many people characterize biological hunger pangs and the resulting hormone releases as anger in response to their social context. In other words, anger isn’t just caused by the release of hunger-triggered stress hormones inside the body.
This study is part of a new initiative in research that investigates how aspects of our biology are entwined with our social and psychological lives (the microbiome has bed a hotbed for research in this vein). “My co-author Kristen Lindquist and I wanted to really unpack what’s happening in people’s minds when they’re hangry,” McCormack says. “This may help people better understand themselves, and the ways that our bodies can, bottom-up, shape our psychology.”
McCormack admits that people can be “really bad” at differentiating a hunger-induced state of irritation from a situationally induced state of anger. She also suggests that those of us who conquer hanger are just good at recognizing it, but she hints that there’s future research to come on that front.