Some days, just trying to survive until lunchtime can feel like you've landed a reluctant role in "The Hanger Games."
Only the combination of hunger and anger is no game. Just ask your friends, family or anyone who has the bad luck to be in your space during those must-eat-now moments.
You're irritable. Patience is razor-thin. And if the pizza guy is a minute late, someone's going to get hurt.
But more importantly, the link between hunger and anger has been documented since the 1940s. That's when 36 men volunteered to forgo food entirely for the Minnesota Starvation Experiment, a sobering study on the tragic physical and mental impact of starvation.
Scientists recorded a downward spiral into savagery, as depression and hysteria surged among subjects. One man even mutilated his own arm in an effort to escape the experiment.
Today that kind of dark descent may seem far-removed from your cubicle, where you can probably get direct-to-desk burrito delivery. Cases of people gnawing off their own arms at the office are, mercifully, rare.
But there are occasions — those prickly moments between feedings — when we can get at least a faint sense of the food rage experienced by the "Minnesota 36." And decades later, scientists may finally understand why.
The new science of hangry
Our moods change not just because our blood sugar levels drop when hungry, as long standing theory holds. It may also be due to a complex blend of biology, personality and environment, according to new research from the American Psychological Association.
"We all know that hunger can sometimes affect our emotions and perceptions of the world around us, but it's only recently that the expression hangry, meaning bad-tempered or irritable because of hunger, was accepted by the Oxford Dictionary," lead author Jennifer MacCormack of the University of North Carolina notes in a press release. "The purpose of our research is to better understand the psychological mechanisms of hunger-induced emotional states — in this case, how someone becomes hangry."
It's not like we take a violent turn every time we get nippish. Instead, the research suggests, our chances of getting hangry depend on context and self-awareness.
"We've all felt hungry, recognized the unpleasantness as hunger, had a sandwich and felt better," explains study co-author Kristen Lindquist in the release. "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."
A dose of negativity can push you in the wrong direction
For the study, psychologists presented 400 people with images that evoked positive, neutral or negative feelings. Then they were shown an ambiguous image — a Chinese pictograph. Subjects were asked to rate the pictograph on a scale that ranged from pleasant to unpleasant.
The researchers found that people who were hungry more often saw the pictograph in a negative light — but only when it was preceded with a negative image.
"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 explains. "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."
The researchers went on to observe that emotional awareness had a tempering effect on whether subjects went full food rage. People who understood that hunger was making them emotional were less likely to lash out.
"A well-known commercial once said, ‘You're not you when you're hungry,' but our data hint that by simply taking a step back from the present situation and recognizing how you're feeling, you can still be you even when hungry," MacCormack explains.
Our physical condition, she adds — hungry or full, sick or healthy — exerts a powerful influence over our state of mind. Being aware of the body's influence can help us moderate our mood. But the most important takeaway from this research may be to take care of ourselves — even if that means running out for some Chinese takeaway.
For the sake of everyone around you.