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‘You’re Not You When You're Hungry’. - How Hunger Leads to Poor Decision Making

Written By: Beth Poultney

Are you, YOU, when you’re hungry?

Probably not. A tummy rumble can inspire fury, I’m sure you’re familiar with the term ‘hangry’. Hunger has the ability to turn a spriteful sunny morning into an angry hulk kind of afternoon. We’ve all got a sibling with the audacity to devour our leftover chicken nuggets, right? No human can suppress that overwhelming anger fueled by an empty stomach.

Hunger can lead to a variety of uncontrollable emotions. Such as sadness, frustration, and even anxiety. As much as we don’t like to admit it, at the end of the day humans are just animals. Despite evolving into the most intellectual species on the planet, our genetic make-up still prioritizes food for survival and we’ll feel pressure, anxiety, and stress until we fulfill that need.

So yes, Snickers couldn’t have said it better with their 2010 campaign: ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’. It’s no wonder it’s one of the most recognizable brand slogans of today. Check it out here:

What happens to our brain when we’re hungry?

The glucose supply in our body diminishes, ultimately starving the brain of its main source of energy. The brain makes up only 2% of our body weight, but consumes around 20% of our total energy. When depriving the brain of glucose, neurotransmitters are no longer produced resulting in an impairment of communication between neurons. This makes it extremely difficult to regulate our emotions and provide us with the concentration we need to get us through the day when we’re hungry.

Never go shopping when you’re hungry.

On a day to day basis, our brains unfortunately do not have the ability to acknowledge every piece of information that we are presented with. Therefore, heuristics come into play. Heuristics is a term for shortcuts that assist us in reducing cognitive load and save mental capacity for more complex scenarios such as problem-solving.

Let’s imagine you’d like to purchase your first jar of mayonnaise, your shopper journey may resemble something like the following:


You pick up a jar of mayo and realize that this is the brand your friend had an allergic reaction to. You may now assume that allergic reactions are more common with this brand of mayo than they are in reality, and you put the jar back down. This is as a result of certain memories surfacing to mind quicker than others, influencing your decision on what to do next. Many decisions we make are based on probability judgments, and memories such as this can make the perceived probability higher than what that objective probability would statistically be.


You pick up another jar of mayo, the image on the front of this jar contains an old lady placing a spoonful of mayo on her sandwich. This lady reminds you a lot of your grandma, you may now assume that this brand of mayo is tangy and smooth like the mayo your grandma used to put on your sandwiches. This is due to a comparison between a present situation and a preconceived representation, and can influence what you feel mayo should taste like.


You woke up on the right side of the bed this morning. Despite this full fat mayo being incredibly high in calories, your spirited mood decides to value the brighter side of the situation and you determine this jar of mayo is well worth each and every calorie. This highlights the effect your emotions can have over your purchasing decision.


Lastly, having picked up ‘Jar One’ first, you noticed this jar of mayo was advertised for R50. Now, looking at ‘Jar Two’, you notice this jar is on sale for only R40! You hurry off to the checkout convinced you’ve got the best deal ever. But had you shopped around a little more, you would have noticed a selection of the same mayo jars for just R30 at the end of the aisle. This demonstrates how we can be influenced by initial information, opposed to taking into consideration all the available information prior to making a decision.

So, can you imagine what sort of deals you miss out on, or products you end up buying because you went to the supermarket hungry?

When your brain isn’t running at full capacity, your heuristics take over in an attempt to reduce cognitive load on those less significant decisions, leaving your subconscious mind and embarrassingly loud rumbling stomach to make our decisions for us.

Supermarkets are filled with modern marketing tactics. Signs displaying ‘Special Offers’ where you can’t resist a double take on the 3 for R 70 Simba Chips or the ‘low fat’ milkshakes where the woman on the front seems to be relishing the creamy chocolate milkshake. Just when you think you’ve come to the end of your shopper experience you’re herded into the snake aisle surrounded by irresistible confectionery items. To top it all off, the cashier at the end offers you 2 for 1 on lunch bars that no-one there came for, but all of a sudden you can’t resist getting your hands on.

When your brain is on autopilot, walking around a supermarket hungry, it can’t withstand the cognitive workload it requires to determine the best offers. Your body doesn’t provide you with enough energy to shop for the very best deals. You end up purchasing the products that have high visual salience or emotional significance because they’re items that allow your brain to remain on autopilot.

Moral of the Story: Don’t make BIG decisions when you’re hungry.

When making decisions, we heavily rely on our prefrontal cortex (working memory) and hippocampus (long-term memory) to communicate effectively. When the brain is not provided with enough fuel, the communication is ineffective resulting in confusion, blurry vision, impatience and fatigue. These symptoms have had an impact on ‘future discounting’ (preferring a type of reward now rather than at a later date) which is also seen as a lack of self-control.

“If you are full in your stomach, you can think about the meaning of life, art, and what’s out there in the universe. When you’re hungry, the only thing that matters is your hunger” - Yeonmi Park Interview with Joe Rogan.

Taking this quote from Park, and translating it into a day in the office, or an exam you’ve been dreading for months, when hungry, your brain will go into survival mode. A way of protecting yourself from ‘wasting’ energy on tasks that simply won’t get your much needed animal instincts from being ignored until tomorrow.

So, do you want to become a mindless zombie on autopilot because you’re hungry? Or are you ready to sufficiently fuel your body to help make better decisions?


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