Many people feel emotional when hungry yet little research explores the psychological mechanisms underlying such states. Guided by psychological constructionist and affect misattribution theories, hunger alone is insufficient for feeling hangry. Rather, the research team hypothesizes that people experience hunger as emotional when they conceptualize their affective state as negative, high arousal emotions specifically in a negative context. Studies 1 and 2 use a cognitive measure (the affect misattribution procedure; Payne, Hall, Cameron, & Bishara, 2010) to demonstrate that hunger shifts affective perceptions in negative but not neutral or positive contexts. Study 3 uses a laboratory-based experiment to demonstrate that hunger causes individuals to experience negative emotions and to negatively judge a researcher, but only when participants are not aware that they are conceptualizing their affective state as emotions.
These findings suggest that feeling hangry occurs when your hunger-induced negativity gets blamed on the external world around you. You think that person who cut you off on the road is the one who made you angry — not the fact that you’re ravenous. This seems to be a fairly unconscious process: People don’t even realize they’re making these attributions.
Our data suggest that paying attention to feelings may short circuit the hangry bias — and even help reduce hanger once you notice it.
Although these studies provide a valuable glimpse into the ways that physical states, like hunger, can temporarily shape our feelings and behaviors, they are only a first step. For example, our studies only address hunger effects in healthy populations where individuals eat regularly. It would be interesting to look at how feeling hangry could change with long-term dieting or conditions like diabetes or eating disorders.
These studies alongside other emerging science suggest that our bodies can deeply shape how we think, feel and act — whether we realize it or not. We’re generally aware that emotions like feeling stressed can influence our health, but the reverse direction is also true. Our bodies and physical health have the power to shape our mental lives, coloring who we are and the way we experience the world around us.