‘Hanger’ really does cause people to make poor decisions for quick gratification. In a new study from the University of Dundee, Dr. Benjamin Vincent has demonstrated that people do not make the best decisions when they are hungry. The research, which showed that people’s preferences are altered on an empty stomach, suggests that important decisions should not be made when we are undernourished, or ‘hangry.’
Dr. Vincent designed an experiment to analyze how participants would answer questions relating to food, money, and other rewards on a day after they had eaten compared to another day when they had not eaten.
As expected, the hungry individuals were willing to settle for smaller food incentives which they could receive sooner. Surprisingly, however, the researchers found that participants had completely different preferences that were unrelated to food when they were acting on an empty stomach.
“We wanted to know whether being in a state of hunger had a specific effect on how you make decisions only relating to food or if it had broader effects, and this research suggests decision-making gets more present-focused when people are hungry,” said Dr Vincent.
“You would predict that hunger would impact people’s preferences relating to food, but it is not yet clear why people get more present-focused for completely unrelated rewards.”
“We hear of children going to school without having had breakfast, many people are on calorie restriction diets, and lots of people fast for religious reasons. Hunger is so common that it is important to understand the non-obvious ways in which our preferences and decisions may be affected by it.”
For three different types of rewards, the participants who were undernourished became more impatient and more likely to settle for a small reward that would arrive sooner rather than a larger one that would be received later. ‘Hanger’ really does cause people to make poor decisions for quick gratification
The researchers found that people were normally willing to wait 35 days to double the value of a reward, but when they were hungry that time frame dropped to only three days.
According to Dr. Vincent, this inability to defer gratification may carry over into other kinds of choices, such as financial and personal decisions. He said it is important for people to be aware that hunger may affect their preferences in ways they cannot necessarily predict.
“We found there was a large effect, people’s preferences shifted dramatically from the long to short term when hungry,” said Dr. Vincent. “This is an aspect of human behavior which could potentially be exploited by marketers so people need to know their preferences may change when hungry.”
“People generally know that when they are hungry they shouldn’t really go food shopping because they are more likely to make choices that are either unhealthy or indulgent. Our research suggests this could have an impact on other kinds of decisions as well. Say you were going to speak with a pensions or mortgage advisor – doing so while hungry might make you care a bit more about immediate gratification at the expense of a potentially more rosy future.”
“This work fits into a larger effort in psychology and behavioral economics to map the factors that influence our decision making. This potentially empowers people as they may foresee and mitigate the effects of hunger, for example, that might bias their decision making away from their long term goals.”
The study is published in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
Image Credit: Shutterstock/Ilya Morozov