Getting ‘hangry’ is a real thing: Scientists find not eating and working on an empty stomach leads to rash decisions and impatience

  • Researchers from the University of Dundee asses how people think when hungry
  • Discovered that people will wait 35 days, on average, for a much larger reward 
  • But when hungry, people are only prepared to wait three days for a larger reward
  • This includes food, but also spans into financial and interpersonal decisions 

Getting ‘hangry’ and operating on an empty stomach can lead to poor decision making, a study has discovered. 

Researchers at the University of Dundee assessed how hunger alters people’s decision-making and found it causes people to make significantly different choices.  

It causes people to become impatient and makes them more inclined to settle for a small reward instead of waiting for a guaranteed larger one at a later date.

It includes food options but also seeps into bigger decisions, such as financial options.   

Scientists at the University of Dundee found that hunger significantly altered people’s decision-making, making them impatient and more likely to settle for a small reward that arrives sooner than a larger one promised at a later date (stock)


After a meal, our gastrointestinal tracts slowly empty by pushing food through the stomach and the small and large intestine.

Specialised contractions called the migrating motor complex (MMC) sweep up undigested food, which is a process that takes around 130 minutes. 

The final phase of the MMC is regulated by a hormone called motilin. Motilin-controlled contractions cause the rumbling in our stomachs and coincide with hunger pangs in humans.

Another hormone implicated in hunger control is ghrelin. 

In mice, ghrelin activates neurons called agouti-related peptide (AgRP)-expression neurons in the hypothalamus region of the brain, which tell us that we are hungry.

These neurons are the control centre for hunger. 

When AgRP neurons are artificially switched on in mice, they gorge themselves on food.

So, our brains pick up messages from our stomachs and tell us that it’s time for our next meal, occurring around 2 hours after we’ve eaten. But that doesn’t explain the irresistible draw of a delicious snack between meals.

Source: MedicalNewsToday  

Dr Benjamin Vincent led the research and asked 50 participants various questions about food, money and other forms of reward. 

They were quizzed twice, once while famished, and again when stuffed with food.   

It, unsurprisingly, found that people who skipped a meal accepted sooner and smaller food rewards but satiated people did not.  

People were offered hypothetical rewards, they can have it now, or twice as much in the future.

When eating normally and not suffering hunger pains, they were normally willing to wait for 35 days to double the reward.

However, after a day of not eating, this plummeted to only 3 days.   

The most surprising result, according to the researchers, was that the effect of short-sighted decisions expands beyond food-related questions.  

The researchers found that being hungry actually changes preferences for rewards entirely unrelated to food.  

‘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.’

Dr Vincent says understanding how hunger alters all decision making could also be key ensuring people that experience hunger due to poverty make decisions that do not further worsen their situation.

‘We found there was a large effect, people’s preferences shifted dramatically from the long to short term when hungry,’ he said. 

‘This is an aspect of human behaviour which could potentially be exploited by marketers so people need to know their preferences may change when hungry.

The research suggests being hungry actually changes preferences for rewards entirely unrelated to food and may carry over into other kinds of decisions, such as financial or interpersonal ones (stock)

‘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 adviser – 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 behavioural economics to map the factors that influence our decision making. 

‘This potentially empowers people as they may forsee and mitigate the effects of hunger, for example, that might bias their decision making away from their long term goals.’   

The research is published in the latest edition of the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 

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