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A new study postulates that being ravenously hungry doesn't always have to lead to feelings of anger. 

Elisabeth Sherman
June 13, 2018

Picture this: It’s three in the afternoon, and you lost track of time at work. When you finally look up from your computer, you realize you haven’t eaten since eight in the morning—if you count drinking a cup of a coffee as eating. You stand up, realize that if you don’t eat something fast you’re likely to snap, and, hoping no one in your office talks to you, rush to the cafeteria. These are the classic symptoms of a syndrome called “hangry” which we are all quite familiar with I’m sure—getting so hungry that you become angry. Now, science has an explanation for why people get hangry, and it’s a much more complicated emotion than you might think.

This is not just the result of a simple drop in blood sugar. The author of a new study published in the journal Emotion, Jennifer MacCormack—a doctoral student in the department of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina—thinks that letting hunger grow into feelings of irritation or frustration involves two other key components: Context and self-awareness. As McCormack points out, normally, when you feel yourself getting hungry, you want to get rid of the unpleasant sensation, so you simply make something to eat and move on with your life.

“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,” MacCormack said in a statement to Science Daily.

Here’s how her experiment went down: 400 test subjects were shown images meant to induce either positive, neutral, or negative emotions. Then they were shown an “ambiguous” image—a Chinese pictograph—and were asked to rate, on a scale of one through seven, how pleasant or unpleasant the pictograph made them feel. They were also asked how hungry they felt at the time of the experiment.

As you might have guessed, the hungrier the test subject, the more likely he or she was to rate the pictograph negatively.

"The idea here is that the negative images provided a context for people to interpret their hunger feelings as meaning the pictographs were unpleasant," MacCormack explained. "So 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 references Snickers commercials, which joke that you're not yourself when you’re hungry. Turns out, that doesn’t have to be the case. MacCormack recommends “simply taking a step back from the present situation and recognizing how you're feeling.” That way you won’t let your negative emotions take over, and you can go get lunch without snapping at any of your co-workers along the way.

"Our bodies play a powerful role in shaping our moment-to-moment experiences, perceptions and behaviors," added MacCormack. "This means that it's important to take care of our bodies, to pay attention to those bodily signals and not discount them, because they matter not just for our long term mental health, but also for the day-to-day quality of our psychological experiences, social relationships and work performance."

The take away here? If you’re feeling hungry, please, take a deep breath, get up from your computer, and take your lunch break.