Being hangry isn’t just in your head, science says it’s real

·3 min read

In 1975, the residents of Amity Island found themselves at the dangerous end of a ravenous shark in Jaws (now streaming on Peacock!). By the time the credits rolled, several people had died, a boat was destroyed, and one particularly hungry shark was blown to smithereens. It’s possible however, that the shark wasn’t evil, it might have just been hungry and lost control of its emotions.

Socially, we’ve long accepted that getting hangry is a thing that happens. The name is a fun portmanteau mashing together the words hungry and angry, but the experience of it isn’t fun at all. Despite there being very little scientific research regarding the phenomenon, we all know what it feels like. Maybe it’s been too long since you’ve had a snack, or you skipped breakfast, and now your blood sugar is low and the pain in your stomach is too much to bear. Your capacity for dealing with the world around you is dropping rapidly and you become irritable.

If you’ve ever had a friend or colleague say you were just overreacting, now you’ve got science to back you up. Researchers from the Karl Landsteiner University of Health Sciences and the School of Psychology and Sport Science at Anglia Ruskin University finally put the phenomenon under the microscope and confirmed there is something biological about hanger. Their findings were published in the journal PLOS ONE.

To get a handle on how hunger might be affecting mood throughout the day, researchers asked 64 study participants to track their emotions five times a day over the course of three weeks, using a smartphone app. In total, they received over 9,000 points of data cataloguing their level of hunger along with different emotional states including anger, irritability, pleasure, and arousal.

When scientists dug into the data, they found that hunger was highly associated with anger and irritability. More than half of all instances of those negative emotions could be tied back to being hungry. Interestingly, they did not see converse associations with pleasure and arousal. Making sure you're well fed, it seems, can help to prevent negative feelings but doesn’t necessarily promote positive ones.

Possible explanations for the prevalence of hanger include increased aggression and impulsivity as a result of low blood sugar, increased stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, and a generally more negative outlook on the world when we’re hungry. However, the precise mechanism or mechanisms isn’t wholly clear, and more research will be needed.

In the meantime, there’s a pretty simple answer to this problem. Unlike many other ailments, science doesn’t need to invent a solution for this particular problem. Just knowing that it’s a real effect one could experience might be enough to help people become aware of when their mood begins to drop. Even better, there’s no better prescription in the world than a delicious snack. Take two bites of a candy bar and call us in the morning.

Modulating the attitude of the killer shark at Amity Island probably wasn’t as simple as giving it a snack. After all, it did eat several people and was still being supremely uncool, but eating some nachos could be the perfect pick me up when you’re feeling down. Even if it isn’t, you still got nachos, so it isn’t all bad.