We all like to think we make rational, measured decisions—after all, our legal training taught us how to analyze issues and act effectively on behalf of our clients. But have you ever considered how hunger affects your work? Recent advertisements have played up the idea that you are “not yourself” when hungry, and the term “hangry” is increasingly used to describe being irritable due to hunger. There seems to be some science backing the idea that we should not make tough decisions on an empty stomach.
A few years ago, I read about a study that found hunger affected judges’ parole decisions. The Science of Justice: I Think It’s Time We Broke for Lunch, The Economist (Apr 14, 2011). Researchers followed eight Israeli judges as they acted on parole applications over a 10-month period. At the beginning of the day, judges granted about two-thirds of the parole applications, but as the day progressed, the numbers dropped dramatically until a meal break. The rate of approval for pardons shot back up after each meal, then decreased again as the day wore on. Decisions were affected by other factors, such as recidivism and rehabilitation information, but after controlling for these, the meal-related decision-making pattern remained. The researchers suggest that when people (even judges) engaging in mentally difficult activities get hungry, their brains get tired and seek easy answers. A decision denying a parole request required less time to make and the written verdict was half as long as a parole grant, so it was the easier choice for a grumpy, tired brain. The researchers note that training and awareness, checklists, and rules can lessen the effects of hunger or other physiological strain, such as fatigue, on decision-making.
Some recent experiments that looked at how hunger affects people suggest that unless we are aware of the problem, our hunger is likely to have a negative effect on our behavior. One study found that hungry people reacted much more strongly to negative images (e.g., a snarling dog) than people who had eaten more recently. Another study found that being aware of your “hanger” reduces anger before a difficult task. Apparently hunger tells our bodies that something is wrong, and if we have not focused on it, we are likely to shift the negative feeling to external things. Other physiological conditions, such as being cold or in pain, might also be tied to our emotions more closely than we think.
So the next time you have some difficult work to do, get a snack!