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Not eating, working on empty stomach leads to rash decisions, impatience, researchers find

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Thinking. Photo: Iwaria

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.

The research was published in the latest edition of the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. 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 three days. The most surprising result, according to the researchers, was that the effect of shortsighted 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 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.”

Vincent said 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.
“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 foresee and mitigate the effects of hunger, for example, that might bias their decision making away from their long term goals.”


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