Have a biscuit and shut up … now psychologists have found ‘hanger’ is a real thing, here’s how to deal with it
Is this article already annoying you? I can only apologise. But also, may I ask whether you’ve skipped breakfast or lunch? Because that might explain it. You’re not really peevish. You’re just peckish.
Those who get a bit snappy on an empty stomach will be pleased to know that being “hangry” – a portmanteau neologism meaning angry because you’re hungry – was last week confirmed as a genuine medical phenomenon. An actual, proper, point-at-the-newspaper-in-vindication thing.
A new study came about after Professor Viren Swami, a social psychologist at Anglia Ruskin university, kept being told he was “hangry” by his long-suffering wife. She’d suggest that eating something might make him less tetchy. It made the scoffing prof wonder if being hangry was a real condition, so he launched a study into how hunger affects everyday emotions. Researchers found that the hungrier people felt, the more bad-tempered they became. To which the appropriate academic response is surely: “Well, duh.”
Swami recruited volunteers to record both their emotions and hunger levels on a smartphone app, five times a day for three weeks. Which sounds like the sort of hard work that would make you ravenous. Psychologists concluded that hunger was associated with higher irritability and lower pleasure. “It turns out that being hangry is a real thing,” said Swami. Who presumably had just eaten or his tone would be markedly sharper.
This might be the first study to get out of the lab and probe people’s day-to-day lives but statistics have long pointed towards “hanger” existing. In Muslim countries, road rage incidents are more frequent during Ramadan.
Now that hanger has been officially recognised – it was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2018 – perhaps we can extend it to more nuanced emotions. “Hunnoyed” for hungry and irritable. “Hormungry” for hungry and hormonal. “Hungrover” for hungry after a night on the booze.
While he doesn’t propose radical solutions, Swami thinks that simply being able to recognise the feeling can help. It’s called “effective labelling”. When we hear our stomach rumble ominously, like a dragon waking from its 1,000-year slumber, we can head off negative effects. Or in crude terms, “have a biscuit and shut up”. It’s about hanger management. Got a metaphorical chip on your shoulder? Try grabbing some literal chips.
After all, we’re much more in touch with our feelings nowadays. Once upon a time, someone short-tempered would be dismissed as a grumpy git. In the touchy-feely 21st century, schooled on mindfulness apps and self-help navel-gazing, we can tilt our heads, pull a concerned face and think: “Why am I angry? When did I last eat?” If your bark gets worse, have a bite.
It’s an adult version of the mental checklist that new parents go through with a crying baby. Are they hungry or thirsty? Tired or bored? Too hot or cold? Does their nappy need changing? You could do worse than apply those criteria to your own grown-up self. I’ll leave it up to your discretion whether to include the nappy one.
Why can hunger control our moods? Some theories suggest that low blood sugar increases impulsivity, anxiety and aggression, while diminishing our decision-making ability. No wonder we’re paralysed by the choice in Pret.
As neuroscientist Dr Dean Burnett points out, the brain is a biological organ which needs nutrients to function effectively. Feeling famished, we find it tricky to focus on anything other than food. Remember when greedy Winnie the Pooh imagined that all the trees in the Hundred Acre Wood were honey pots? Or for an even more highbrow reference point, the first Minions movie when Stuart’s hungry hallucinations turned his shipmates into bananas?
Either way, the study raises a serious point: that pupils who go to school hungry are less likely to learn effectively and more likely to have behavioural problems. Properly fed children must be a priority if we want to raise a well-educated generation. If only we could count on politicians to guarantee free school meals, rather than relying on dear old Marcus Rashford. As for us adults whose moods darken when we’ve got the munchies? Don’t look back in hanger. Have a sandwich and feel fuppy (full and happy).