Whenever I am hungry, I am only looking for food or desperately waiting for the next meal time. Anything else you put across to me will go unattended. In fact, at the moment of writing this article, I am extremely hungry and cannot frame my sentences well. I cannot think to my full potential. These are my observations over the past 3 decades of my life. I am not going to conclude this is true for everybody as I was the only subject during my observations. However, my brain tells me that this seems to be common for all people. No? Do you know anybody who is extremely sharp and agile when hungry?
Results from a new research suggest that when hungry, people are more willing to accept smaller rewards immediately over larger rewards in the long run (1).
Participants in an experiment designed by Dr. Benjamin Vincent from the University of Dundee’s Psychology Department were asked 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.
This indicates that a reluctance to defer gratification may carry over into other kinds of decisions, such as financial and interpersonal ones. Dr Vincent 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.
Dr 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 classed as 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.
- 1.J. Skrynka, B. Vincent, Hunger increases delay discounting of food and non-food rewards. Psychon Bull Rev (2019) (available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/31520252).