Don’t make big Decisions When your’re Hungry, Study Finds
Don’t Make Big Decisions When You’re Hungry, Study Finds
Alice G. Walton Senior Contributor Sep 16, 2019
Most people know that going grocery shopping on an empty stomach can only lead to heartache, when you realize you have nothing to show for your grocery run but potato chips and Ding Dongs. But according to a new study from the University of Dundee in the UK, making any kind of decision while hungry can lead to poorer choices for the long-term. And that might have serious consequences for people who are chronically hungry.
The study was published this month in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review.
“This work fits into a larger effort in psychology and behavioural economics to map the factors that influence our decision making,” said study author Benjamin Vincent in a statement. “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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He and his team were interested in the phenomenon known as delay discounting, whereby people tend to prefer smaller rewards in the present to larger rewards in the future. For example, many people would choose a dollar now over two dollars later. And then there’s the famous marshmallow test, which set out to measure impulsivity in kids, asking them whether they’d rather have one marshmallow now or two marshmallows in 15 minutes. Similarly, the authors of the current study wondered whether being in a hungry state would affect now-vs-later decisions, and not just about food: They wondered whether it would carry over to other areas—like money and music—as well.
The team asked participants who were either satiated or hungry (having fasted for 10 hours) whether they would prefer food, money, or music now or a greater quantity in the future. And indeed they found that indeed being hungry bled over to other areas. For instance, the amount of time people were willing to wait for double the amount of food in the future was 35 days among satiated participants, but only three days for hungry participants. For money, the respective drop was from 90 days to 40 days in satiated and hungry conditions, and for music downloads it was around 40 days to 12 days.
Doing a little calculation, the team arrived at the following: The carryover effect of hunger on food is very strong, while its effects on money and music are each moderately strong. The bottom line is that when people are in a hungry state, they become more focused on short-term rewards, and across multiple areas.
“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.
He adds that the findings could have real-life consequences: making financial decisions on an empty stomach might lead to more shortsighted decisions. “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,” says Vincent.
And people who are chronically undernourished might be particularly vulnerable: earlier research has shown that the stress of living in poverty can lead to poorer financial decisions—hunger might just compound the issue. And people fasting intentionally might also be prone to poorer long-term decisions in areas beyond food choices.
“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,” says Vincent. “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.”