How Hunger Aids Random Decision-Making

Hunger does have emotional consequences. The Urban Dictionary describes this as being ‘Hangry’:

A state of anger and irritability resulting from being hungry.

Karen: What is up with you? You are being so annoying.

Nini: Ugh. I didn’t eat breakfast and I am starving. I am really hangry

However, before you reach out to grab a bite, remember that staying hungry can actually enhance your ability to make random decisions. While Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1976 debut (technically it was his 3rd film) uses hunger as a metaphor for keeping oneself challenged to achieve a goal, research shows that an empty stomach does help you with random decision-making.

Primary evidence in this regards comes to us from a study titled ‘Always Gamble on an Empty Stomach: Hunger Is Associated with Advantageous Decision Making (Ridder, Kroese, Adriaanse, and Evans 2014), which in turn is based on what is known as the ‘Iowa Gambling Task’. This is a decision-making simulator that uses 4 decks of cards where participants have to rely on their hunch or intuition to make random decisions.

Summary of the Study

The ‘Always Gamble…’ study uses the concept of ‘hot states’ to determine the effects of being hungry with random decision-making. Basically, hot states are situations where high emotional levels clout the thinking process when a person needs to make rational decisions. These are conflict situations, where for the most part, you are trapped between a short-term gain and long term loss (e.g. grabbing a donut and then putting on weight) and short-term loss with long-term gain (e.g. not staying up late with friends because you have a job interview tomorrow).

When you are in a hot state, you will almost always make the wrong decision that leads to long-term consequences, usually financial. However, the study in question actually demonstrated that ‘hot states may benefit rather than harm decision making’.

To back their notion, the researchers conducted three studies, two of which used the ‘Iowa Gambling Task’. The first study involved the participants to fast from 11pm in the night, and when they arrived in the lab next morning, they were divided into two groups. Those in the ‘cool state’ were served breakfast and were satiated, while those in the ‘hot taste’ where kept hungry. In this state, both groups took the gambling test and it was seen that the group that fasted overnight were better at taking complex decisions, even though the physiological effects of hunger typically limit cognitive ability.

The second study didn’t have to do with hunger, but the participants were presented with almost a dozen snacks. The hot state group had to focus on appetite while the cool group had to focus on price. Once again, it was seen that people with larger appetites made more advantageous decisions.

The Relevance of the IGT

While the Iowa Gambling Task is not a perfect system, it is still a valid method to ‘to assess performance on a complex decision task with uncertain outcomes’.

The last point is highly relevant. In life, we are usually faced with uncertain outcomes when we need to make random decisions. However, if you have an empty stomach, then you will most probably make the right choice.