Feeling Hangry: How Hunger Dominates Our Emotions

How is it that being hungry controls so much of our behavior not immediately related to the gathering and consumption of food?

A long series of studies confirms that feeling hungry controls much of our non-food-related behavior. Hunger makes us more sensitive to our environment and markedly less generous: we are more critical of ourselves and others; we give less to charity; and we hoard non-food objects in a way satiated people don't.


At The New Yorker, food blogger Nicola Twilley argues that hunger was once a beneficial adaptation, inspiring in us "the drive to hunt and the good sense to gather." Today, however, hunger is ill-suited to facilitating our social survival. The negative emotions associated with hunger have even sprouted the new pop-culture term "hangry" (a combination of hunger and angry).

"In 1946, a study known as the Minnesota Starvation Experiment documented the powerful connection between hunger and anger ... In that experiment, 36 healthy young men were systematically starved for six months. Their suffering was meant to help clinicians come up with treatment recommendations for the liberated peoples of Europe. In a series of oral histories, gathered 57 years after the study ended, the 18 surviving participants clearly recalled the effects of long-term hunger: 'noticing what’s wrong with everybody else' and exploding with rage at the tiniest provocation."

At least for a majority of people in the western hemisphere, the abundance and convenience of nourishment is unprecedented on an evolutionary timescale. In a sense, food is probably too available, simultaneously making us obese and frustrated with each other when we aren't satiated immediately.

"An adaptation that’s useful on the savannah doesn’t necessarily help in the office cubicle or the dorm room."

An interesting question is whether cultural traditions that purposefully manipulate food intake — typically in the form of ritualized fasting — work against our propensity toward becoming "hangry" by acclimating us to the feeling of needing nourishment and purposefully forgoing it.

Joel Cohen, a mathematical biologist and professor of Populations at Rockefeller and Columbia Universities, researches demographics in a way that intersects with food production. His sobering assessment gives another interpretation to why hungry people might be angry:

"Last year, we grew enough grain to feed decently between 9 [billion] and 11 billion people. We have under 7 billion, and of those, 1 billion are chronically hungry; they're not getting enough. How is it possible? ... And the reason is, the billion people are poor. They got no money and they're economically invisible because the price of food doesn't take account of hunger. Especially children. They've got no money so they go hungry."

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