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Life Helper: Don’t Make Major Decisions When Hungry

New research from Scotland supports the notion that hunger can influence our thoughts — and suggesting that we delay making important decisions when we are hungry.

Researchers from 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.

Dr. Benjamin Vincent from the University’s Psychology department asked individuals questions relating to food, money and other rewards when satiated and again when they had skipped a meal.

While it was perhaps unsurprising that hungry people were more likely to settle for smaller food incentives that arrived sooner, the researchers found that being hungry actually changes preferences for rewards entirely unrelated to food.

Vincent believes this indicates that a reluctance to defer gratification may carry over into other kinds of decisions, such as financial and interpersonal ones. He believes it is important that people know that hunger might affect their preferences in ways they don’t necessarily predict.

There is also a danger that people experiencing hunger due to poverty may make decisions that entrench their situation.

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

Vincent and his co-author and former student Jordan Skrynka tested 50 participants twice, once when they had eaten normally and once having not eaten anything that day.

For three different types of rewards, when hungry, people expressed a stronger preference for smaller hypothetical rewards to be given immediately rather than larger ones that would arrive later.

The researchers noted that if you offer people a reward now or double that reward in the future, they were normally willing to wait for 35 days to double the reward, but when hungry this plummeted to only 3 days.

The work builds on a well-known psychological study where children were offered one marshmallow immediately or two if they were willing to wait 15 minutes. Those children who accepted the initial offering were deemed more impulsive than those who could delay gratification and wait for the larger reward.

In the context of the Dundee study, this indicates that hunger makes people more impulsive even when the decisions they are asked to make will do nothing to relieve their hunger.

“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.”

Source: University of Dundee

Life Helper: Don’t Make Major Decisions When Hungry

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2019). Life Helper: Don’t Make Major Decisions When Hungry. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 13, 2019, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2019/09/18/life-helper-dont-make-major-decisions-when-hungry/150338.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 19 Sep 2019
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 19 Sep 2019
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