The Risks of Hunger. It Makes You Take More Risks.

The Risks of Hunger. It Makes You Take More Risks.

You know those nature documentaries, the ones where hungry polar bears risk their lives attacking dangerous walruses, or starving lions put their lives on the line attacking fierce horned cape buffalo? Well, that's you too, when the animal in you signals that your energy tank is running low and it's time to fill up. Hunger, it turns out, makes us more than just cranky. It makes us risk takers.


And not just for food. A 2010 study titled Metabolic State Alters Economic Decision Making in Humans Under Risk found that the hungrier we are, the more risk we are willing to take with money. Men in the study who were purposefully starved made riskier choices about a financial gamble. Well-fed subjects made much less riskier choices.

You don't need a degree in psychology to figure out why this makes sense. We need energy to survive. The lack of food - energy – triggers biochemical changes that tell us, or the polar bear, or the lion…time to lay it all on the line, because if you don't eat soon, it could be the end of the line.

What's intriguing about the study above, and other studies that find the same thing in animals, including a new one of fruit flies from the Max Planck Institute (yup, fruit flies take more risks when they are hungry too), is what they suggest about cognition and free will. As with so many findings in research on human decision making, the biological processes of the human animal that subconsciously trigger many of our behaviors appear to be largely running the show. Our conscious purposeful analytical thinking is not nearly as in charge as we think it is. The implication of this is that our faith in reason and rationality is foolish, and when it comes to risk, it can be dangerously foolish.

The study about how hunger affected financial gambles tracked the blood hormone levels in the subjects. Levels of ghrelin, which triggers hunger, and leptin, which sends signals about the body's energy reserves (fat storage in cells), varied notably between starved and well-fed subjects. These hormonal signals go to lots of places, including parts of the brain associated with decision making. Those signals set off a cascade of responses in networks of brain cells that in turn trigger other hormonal responses which help trigger how we behave.

In fact, the study of fruit flies dug deep inside this neurophysical chain reaction and even identified a single neuron that helps the fruit flies overlook danger (essentially by ignoring the signal about elevated carbon dioxide levels, a sign that some air-breathing predator may be around) when they're hungry. We're not fruit flies, of course, but there are certainly cells and pathways and chemicals in us that do the same sorts of things. The way hunger affects our decision making also occurs at this subconscious primary cellular level, far below the level of conscious purposeful reasoning.

It's not as though reason and 'thinking' and conscious purposeful rational decision making play no role. Of course they do. We're not fruit flies. But hunger, and risk, are just two examples that prove the wisdom of what Ambrose Bierce suggested in the Devil's Dictionary; the brain is only the organ with which we think we think. Many of our judgments and behaviors are not a matter of conscious choice. There are more serious limits on our free will than many of us realize, and that has profound implications across many facets of society; law, economics, democracy. (Think about what this says about our abilities to make thoughtful choices about our laws, and leaders!) It certainly bears dramatically on our health and safety.

Hunger is just one sort of threat signal. Terrorism, crime, climate change, industrial chemicals that freak us out…they all trigger similar subconscious instinctive hormonal and cellular responses that shape our perceptions of risk and our choices and behaviors about how to protect ourselves…hormonal and cellular responses that are so powerful and innate that conscious reason can not entirely overcome them - when it plays a role in decision making at all. At the most basic level, this is why we sometimes fear some things too much, and some things too little, and why our perceptions of risk may feel right but may not match the facts, mistakes that can produce dangerous individual and societal choices, creating new and significant risks.

That's the Risk Perception Gap I write about so much, the danger of getting risk wrong and doing risky things as a result. It's a danger we need to recognize, that we have to accept is an inherent part of the human condition, and a danger that produces risks that need to be studied and managed every bit as much as the dangers of climate change or industrial chemicals or crime themselves.

Meanwhile, I think I'll go have some chocolate ice cream and a bowl of Cheetohs. Yeah, I know I'm overweight, but hey…I'm hungry.

(photo credit: mytrektravel.blogspot.com/)

Credit: fergregory via Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • Australian scientists found that bodies kept moving for 17 months after being pronounced dead.
  • Researchers used photography capture technology in 30-minute intervals every day to capture the movement.
  • This study could help better identify time of death.
Keep reading Show less
Credit: Willrow Hood / 362693204 via Adobe Stock
13-8

The distances between the stars are so vast that they can make your brain melt. Take for example the Voyager 1 probe, which has been traveling at 35,000 miles per hour for more than 40 years and was the first human object to cross into interstellar space. That sounds wonderful except, at its current speed, it will still take another 40,000 years to cross the typical distance between stars.

Worse still, if you are thinking about interstellar travel, nature provides a hard limit on acceleration and speed. As Einstein showed, it's impossible to accelerate any massive object beyond the speed of light. Since the galaxy is more than 100,000 light-years across, if you are traveling at less than light speed, then most interstellar distances would take more than a human lifetime to cross. If the known laws of physics hold, then it seems a galaxy-spanning human civilization is impossible.

Unless of course you can build a warp drive.

Keep reading Show less

Just when the Middle Ages couldn’t get worse, everyone had bunions

The Black Death wasn't the only plague in the 1300s.

By Loyset Liédet - Public Domain, wikimedia commons
Culture & Religion
  • In a unique study, researchers have determined how many people in medieval England had bunions
  • A fashion trend towards pointed toe shoes made the affliction common.
  • Even monks got in on the trend, much to their discomfort later in life.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast