We like to think that we are rational and objective people, that most of our decisions are reasoned and come from a judicious assessment of the pros and cons of our options. However, the truth is that our decisions are influenced by dozens of factors that tip the balance in one direction or another without being fully aware of it.
A study conducted at the National University of Singapore, for example, revealed that when we are exposed to foods that look delicious or have a pleasant smell, we are more likely to choose going camping instead of studying or opting for a cinema in instead of reading a book. It is also known that shopping while hungry will make us spend more than usual. Now psychologists at Dundee University alert us that we should avoid making important decisions about our future if we have an empty stomach.
The more hungry you are, the worse decisions you will make
Being hungry or feeling satiated can influence our decisions. These researchers evaluated how people reacted when they were hungry or satiated when making decisions about such disparate aspects as food, money or music.
They discovered that when people were hungry they were more likely to rush into their decisions, choosing smaller but immediate rewards instead of waiting for bigger ones. They found that when a satiated person is offered the possibility of choosing between a small reward now or double that reward in the future, he is willing to wait up to 35 days. However, if that person is hungry, his patience shortens considerably and is only willing to wait 3 days.
That means that when we are hungry we have difficulties in delaying the gratification of our desires and needs in favor of a more promising future, which would lead us to make inconvenient decisions that may affect our long-term goals.
This tendency to make hasty decisions was not limited solely to food, but extended to all kinds of decisions, from economic to interpersonal ones. In fact, the researchers point out that “People’s preferences changed dramatically from long to short term when they were hungry, so it is important that people be aware of it.”
That is, planning a meeting with an investment advisor if we are hungry can cause us to make riskier financial decisions and talking with our partner about a future together can cause us to rush making decisions that we later regret.
Hedonic homeostasis, or why we make impulsive decisions while hungry
Everything seems to indicate that hunger changes the way we see reality. It makes us focus on immediate gratifications, which can lead us to make hedonic decisions to which we end up sacrificing our long-term goals.
Researchers believe that this bias when making decisions is due to “hedonic homeostasis”, a phenomenon that is related to our ability to administer and regulate pleasures and gratifications. This hypothesis is supported by an experiment conducted by psychologists from the University of Aarhus, who found that when we are hungry our hedonic decisions increase; that is, we prefer a chocolate to a carrot or an apartment with good views to another that is close to work. We prioritize pleasure over pragmatic aspects or reason.
In practice, if we cannot satisfy hunger, we will tend to be more lenient with ourselves, choosing other immediate rewards that allow us to maintain the hedonic balance.
Therefore, the next time you have to make an important decision, make sure you are not hungry.
Skrynka, J. & Vincent, B. T. (2019) Hunger increases delay discounting of food and non-food rewards. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review; 1-9.
Otterbring, T. (2019) Time orientation mediates the link between hunger and hedonic choices across domains. Food Research International; 120: 124-129.
Li, X. (2008) The effects of appetitive stimuli on out-of-domain consumption impatience. Journal of Consumer Research;34(5): 649–656.