Why You Should Make Your Most Important Decisions Hungry

“Trust your gut” has taken on whole new meaning.

According to new research from experts at the Utrecht University in the Netherlands, an empty, growling stomach might actually improve your decision-making. And the science behind this discovery is pretty interesting.

The Study

In the study, researchers conducted three different experiments. The study’s subjects were asked to have nothing but water the night before. The day they came in, one group was offered food before they started, while another group wasn’t offered anything at all. They were then asked to perform certain tasks involving risk and reward, to try to win as much money as they could.

Surprisingly, they found “people who were moderately hungry or had a moderate appetite, compared to people who were satiated or had a lower appetite, made more advantageous decisions.”

Meaning? Those who were hungry turned out to be hungrier for money, too, doing better than those who had eaten.

So maybe the 31 million Americans who skip breakfast everyday are on to something.

And a lot of their research had to do with “hot states” and “cold states,” where the experts argue that a person in a “hot state” is better at making decisions.

Our Hot and Cold States  

According to experts, people in a “hot” state are aroused in some way — they could be really excited, scared or hungry.

And these types of states are powerful. One cancer researcher asked medical professionals if they would undergo tough chemotherapy sessions if only to extend their lives for a few months. In a cold state, fewer than one in ten said it would be worth it. But when researchers asked cancer patients in a very hot state if they thought the chemo was worth it, almost half said they’d do it to extend their lives.

When we’re in a cold state, we think differently. Sensations like hunger, too-cold or too-hot temperatures and pain (physical or emotional) don’t exist to distract the decisions we make.

In a study published in the journal Psychological Science, researchers examined the so-called “cold-to-hot empathy gap in smokers.” They found that when smokers were in a cold state (not craving cigarettes) they were more likely to underestimate their cravings and make bad decisions in their effort to quit (like hanging around a bunch of smokers.)

Really, when we’re feeling more rather than less is when we make better decisions for ourselves.

making better decisions hungry

What can we learn about gambling from this info about hot and cold states? Put the fork down before you head to the casino.

Let’s dig deeper into the Utrecht University study: In their third experiment, researchers asked participants to choose between getting a smaller amount of money immediately, or waiting for a larger sum in the future. Those who hadn’t eaten chose the larger, future amount and those who did eat chose the smaller, immediate amount.

You’d think the larger amount with a longer wait-time would be a no-brainer for either group, right? But people with an empty stomach were found to better process the right, more rewarding choice. Why? Because they were in a hot state, more influenced by the emotions surrounding them.

On Being “Hangry”

Have you ever heard the phrase “hangry” — a hybrid of hungry and angry? Chances are, you’ve felt that way on a hot afternoon after going the whole day without eating. The science behind hanger gels well with the science we’re discussing now.

It all happens when your blood sugar levels drop, and nutrients begin leaving your body. As this happens, you’re more prone to snap at people, become tired and react badly in stressful situations.

This seems like a contradiction to the Utrecht University study — but it actually makes sense. Being hungry puts you in a hot state, and anger is one of the emotions you can feel when thrown into a hot state. And sometimes, anger can push you into making good decisions, especially when you’re seeing people for who they truly are.

So, does this mean you shouldn’t eat before big tests?

No. Starving yourself isn’t the answer. But neither is over-eating.

There’s a reason why experts tell you to eat a “light snack” before taking the SATs. Eating a massive breakfast before the big test will leave you bloated and satisfied, with less physiological motivation to do better. But eating a light snack will keep most of your hunger at bay, while still keeping you in a hot state. It’s all about moderation.

Often we’re told that our emotions hinder us from making good decisions. But from the research at Utrecht University, it’s clear that putting a little emotion and empathy into big decisions is a good choice.

So maybe skip the big pasta dinner before you head to the casino.

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