If you’re someone who gets cranky when you’re hungry, research now shows it’s not all in your head.
Hangry, a portmanteau of hungry and angry, is defined by Oxford Dictionary as being “bad-tempered or irritable as a result of hunger.”
And thanks to a team of social psychologists at Anglia Ruskin University, the phenomena known as hanger is now backed by science.
“We found basically that the greater the level of hunger at any given time point, the greater the degree of anger, the greater the irritability and also the lower the level of pleasure that individual would feel,” says Viren Swami, professor of social psychology and lead of the academic study.
“In very simple terms, we found that hanger was real. Being hangry is a real thing.”
For the study, which was published in the journal PLOS One last week, researchers sent participants five smartphone prompts a day at randomized times for three weeks, tracking their mood and hunger levels during their daily routines. The data showed a direct, real-world connection between feeling hungry and feeling grumpy — a first in the research field, Swami says.
And while some have been quick to write-off the study as inconsequential in academia, Swami says there are some significant consequences to feeling hanger in the real world, especially for those who are unable to satisfy their hunger.
The USDA estimates 38.3 million people lived in food insecure households in 2020, including as many as 1 in 6 children.
“If a child goes to school on an empty stomach and is feeling angry, it will affect not just their interactions with other school kids, but also the interactions with teachers and also probably that the effectiveness of their learning,” says Swami.
Research from Lancaster University found that children with chronic food insecurity had the lowest test scores across the board, including vocabulary, reading and math. The impact of hunger and food insecurity on academic success was particularly influential in younger children, when fundamental educational concepts and habits are first established.
And for the 158,000 Americans in the labor market, hanger can have a direct impact on their ability to perform, work alongside peers, and ultimately grow in their career.
“For someone who's at work, they're feeling hungry. It may affect how they're relating to other people at work or how productive they can be,” says Swami. “And I think although it can seem quite trivial being hungry, the implications can be really important.”
For people who do experience hanger, Swami says being able to recognize and interpret your feelings — also known as affect labeling — can help pull you out of negative emotions and behavior.
“It's worth sometimes thinking about why you're feeling angry and to be able to label that as hunger can be really useful. So if I'm feeling hungry right now, I label it. I say, ‘I'm feeling hungry,’ and then I can do something about it.”
This technique is one Swami himself has found useful, as he’ll be the first to tell you he’s been prone to hanger in the past.
“I can happily admit that my wife was right. There is such a thing as hanger.”