2013. Vol.4, No.1, 59-66
Published Online January 2013 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/psych) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/psych.2013.41008
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 59
Hunger and Reduced Self-Control in the Laboratory and across
the World: Reducing Hunger as a Self-Control Panacea
Matthew T. Gailliot
Psychology Department, Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, USA
Received August 23rd, 2012; revised October 16th, 2012; accepted November 10th, 2012
Ten studies link hunger to reduced self-control. Higher levels of hunger—as assessed by self-report, time
since last eating, or physiology—predicted reduced self-control, as indicated by increased racial prejudice,
(hypothetical) sexual infidelity, passivity, accessibility of death thoughts and perceptions of task difficulty,
as well as impaired Stroop performance and decreased self-monitoring. Increased rates of hunger across
200 countries predicted increased war killings, suggestive of reduced aggressive restraint. In a final ex-
periment, self-reported hunger mediated the effect of hungry (v fed) participants performing worse on the
Stroop task, suggesting a causal relationship of hunger reducing self-control.
Keywords: Self-Control; Self-Regulation; Hunger; Glucose; Executive Functioning
Hunger may be a serious problem. Hunger has been reported
to afflict one billion people—nearly one-sixth of the world po-
pulation (Food and Agricultural Organization, 2009). A person
dies from starvation every second, a child every five sec-
onds—accounting for nearly 60% of all deaths (Food and Agri-
culture Organization, Economic and Social Department, 2005).
The current work examined whether hunger might have a dele-
terious effect on human psychology—namely, on self-control.
Hunger occurs both temporarily and chronically, and both may
hamper good self-control.
Self-control is important. Good self-control contributes to
many benefits throughout the lifespan, including better social
relationships, mental health, and intellect, and less criminality
(Finkel & Campbell, 2001; Gottfredson & Hirschi, 1990; Shoda,
Mischel, & Peake, 1990; Tangney, Baumeister, & Boone,
2004). Self-control may have evolved on the basis of its foster-
ing social cooperation and harmony (Baumeister, 2005). Poor
self-control thus contributes to many ills both individually and
societally. Hunger therefore could thwart many desirable out-
comes both occasionally and chronically.
Humans are metabolic entities. One of our most important
capacities—self-control—is metabolically expensive yet re-
quires having adequate metabolic energy (Gailliot & Baumeis-
ter, 2007a; Gailliot et al., 2007). One supporting idea is that
hunger is a state in which reductions in energy availability pre-
clude optimal self-control.
Ten studies link hunger to reduced self-control. This conclu-
sion is strengthened in that a variety of indicators were used to
assess indices of both hunger (self-reported hunger, time since
last eating, physiology, societal hunger) and self-control
(Stroop performance, sexual behavior, aggression, prejudice,
death-thought accessibility, passivity, self-monitoring, percep-
tions of task difficulty). The work includes data from the labo-
ratory, the field, and across large populations, incorporating
both correlational and experimental methods.
Harmful Effects Hunger—Mig ht Hunger Impair
Both temporary and chronic hungers have many harmful
psychological effects. Hunger worsens mental health, increases
interpersonal conflict, harms many cognitive abilities (e.g.,
verbal fluency, memory, learning, intelligence), and increases
absenteeism, tardiness, discipline problems, and nurse visits
among schoolchildren (Alaimo, Olson, Edward, & Frongillo,
2001; Barrett, Radke-Yarrow, & Klein, 1982; Howard, 2008;
Lopez-Sobaler, Ortega, Quintas, Navia, & Requejo, 2003;
Murphy, 2007). Self-control has been linked to the same, and
similar, abilities, such as intelligence, attention control, and
memory (Duckworth & Seligman, 2005; Schmeichel, 2007;
Schmeichel, Vohs, & Baumeister, 2003; Tangney, Baumeister,
& Boone, 2004). One especially relevant study found that in-
creased food insecurity predicted worse self-control among
schoolchildren, as assessed by teacher ratings (Howard, 2008).
This suggests that hunger might harm self-control generally.
Research on glucose provides one basis to suggest an influ-
ence of hunger on self-control. Low blood-glucose occurs dur-
ing hunger (Campfield & Smith, 1986; Ciampolini et al., 2008;
Ciampolini & Bianchi, 2006; De Graaf, Blom, Smeets, Stafleu,
& Hendriks, 2004; Gavin, 2001; Elliot, Keim, Stern, Teff, &
Havel, 2002; Merimee & Tyson, 1974) and has been linked to
reduced self-control (DeWall, Baumeister, Gailliot, & Maner,
2008; DeWall, Gailliot, Deckman, & Bushman, 2009; Fair-
clough & Houston, 2004; Gailliot et al., 2007; Gailliot & Bau-
meister, 2007a; Gailliot, Peruche, Plant, & Baumeister, 2009;
Masicampo & Baumeister, 2008). Likewise, cognitive effects
of hunger have been linked to low glucose (Benton & Sargent,
1992; Pollitt, Leibel, & Greenfield, 1981; Pollitt, Lewis, Garza,
& Schulman, 1982; Pollitt & Mathews, 1998). It may be
unlikely that changes in glucose account entirely for any influ-
ence of hunger—that is, that hunger is only a proxy for glucose.
A relatively large number of studies have found that impair-
ments caused by hunger are not due to glucose (Pollitt, Cueto,
& Jacoby, 1996; Cueto et al., 1995, unpublished data, as cited
M. T. GAILLIOT
in Pollitt, 1995).
The Current Work
Ten studies assessed the relationship between hunger and
self-control. Their purpose is to relate hunger to indices of re-
duced self-control across a variety of domains. The prediction
is that increased hunger will accompany reductions in self-
Hunger could potentially influence self-control via changes
in mood. Being hungry might be aversive and increase negative
mood, or it might increase or decrease arousal by making peo-
ple jittery or tired. Providing a test of these ideas, several of the
studies include measures of mood and arousal.
Study 1: Self-Reported Hunger Predicts
The hypothesis for Study 1 was that higher self-reported
hunger would predict worse performance on the Stroop task,
which requires self-control in the form of overriding the auto-
matic tendency to read words and instead to focus on their font
Nineteen undergraduates (15 women, 4 men) participated for
a course requirement. Participants first reported their current
hunger level on a scale from 1 (not at all hungry) to 7 (very
hungry). Participants later completed the Brief Mood Introspec-
tion Scale (BMIS) as a measure of mood and arousal (Mayer &
Gaschke, 1988). Afterward, they completed the Stroop task.
Participants completed 100 trials in which they saw a color
word (red, blue, or green) and were asked to state aloud its
incongruent font color (red, blue, or green) as quickly and ac-
curately as possible.
Results and Discussion
Higher self-reported hunger predicted more errors on the
Stroop task, r(19) = .42, p < .05 (one-tailed), but was unre-
lated to completion time, ns. The relationship between hunger
and errors remained when controlling for mood valence,
arousal, and completion time, r(14) = .49, p = .05.
Study 2: Physiological Hunger Predicts
Rather than relying on a self-report measure of hunger, Study
2 included a physiological measure. Past work indicates that
hunger, whether or not consciously perceived, initiates when
blood-glucose levels are at or below 81.8 mg/dL (Ciampolini et
al., 2008), or perhaps 87 mg/dL (Ciampolini & Bianchi, 2006).
Study 2 therefore tested whether self-control would be impaired
at or below 81.8 mg/dL or 87 mg/dL, with the 81.8 mg/dL
measure taking precedence over the 87 mg/dL measure due to
its being better supported (Ciampolini et al., 2008). The work
includes assessment of whether the relationship between hunger
and self-control was predicted by linear glucose levels so as to
separate any influence of glucose from that of hunger. The
hypothesis was that activated physiological hunger would pre-
dict impaired Stroop performance, and that this relationship
would be separated from linear glucose levels. The study in-
cludes two separate samples.
Twenty-nine (19 women, 10 men; sample 1) and forty-two
(31 women, 11 men; sample 2) undergraduates participated for
a course requirement. Participants first had their glucose levels
assessed, using single-use blood sampling lancets and an
Accu-chek compact meter. Next, they completed the UWIST
Mood Adjective Checklist as a measure of hedonic tone, tense-
arousal, and energetic-arousal (Matthews, Jones, & Chamber-
lain, 1990; sample 1) or BMIS (sample 2) and the Stroop task.
Participants in the first sample completed the same Stroop pro-
cedure used in Study 1, whereas those in the second sample
performed the task for 3 minutes.
Results and Discussion
Participants in the first sample who scored in the hunger
group (i.e., those who had glucose levels at or below 81.8
mg/dL) made more errors on (M = 3.14, SD = 1.47) and took
longer to complete (in seconds; M = 94.77, SD = 12.92) the
Stroop than did those in the no-hunger group (for errors, M =
1.82, SD = 1.47; for completion time, M = 72.18, SD = 22.90),
F(1, 27) = 4.33, p < .05, d = .90, r = .41 (for errors), F(1, 27) =
16.23, p < .001, d = 1.22, r = .52 (for completion time), when
controlling for hedonic tone, tense-arousal, and energetic-
arousal. Linear glucose levels predicted neither errors nor com-
pletion time, ps > .17.
Among participants in the second sample, hunger was de-
fined by glucose levels at or below 87 mg/dL because the sam-
ple was too small to use the 81 mg/dL criterion. Participants in
the hungry group completed fewer trials (M = 204.71, SD =
41.59) than did those in the nonhungry group (M = 233.94, SD
= 41.57), F(1, 39) = 2.87, p < .05, d = −.70, r = −.33 (one-
tailed), when controlling for mood valence, arousal, and errors
on the Stroop (the two groups did not differ in errors, p = .26).
Linear glucose levels did not predict completion time, p = .62.
These results indicate that the presence or absence of hunger is
related to self-control. It is unclear why hunger would relate
inconsistently to either speed or accuracy, though one explana-
tion is that, lacking self-control, participants may trade off one
capacity for the other, and that hungry participants devoted
themselves more to accuracy.
That the Stroop task measures domain general self-control
raises the hypothesis tested in the subsequent studies, namely
that hunger is associated with impaired self-control across mul-
Study 3: Self-Reported Hunger Predicts
People sometimes control their sexual thoughts and behavior,
which requires self-control (Barth & Kinder, 1987; Carnes,
1983; Coleman, 1992; Earle & Crow, 1990; Gold & Heffner,
1998; Wiederman, 2004). Reduced self-control is associated
with increased sexuality (Armentrout & Hauer, 1978; Exner,
Meyer-Bahlburg, Ehrhardt, 1992; Giotakos, Vaidakis, Mar-
kianos, & Chrisodoulou, 2003; Hanson & Bussiere, 1998; Her-
nandez & DiClemente, 1992; Kalichman et al., 1994; Koepp,
Schildbach, Schmager, & Rohner, 1993; McGrath, 1991; Wills,
Gibbons, Gerrard, Murry, & Brody, 2003; Zanarini et al., 1998;
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
M. T. GAILLIOT
Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007b).
The hypothesis for Study 3 was that higher self-reported
hunger would predict an increased likelihood of sexual infidel-
ity, indicating reduced self-control. The idea is that people in
committed romantic relationships sometimes desire to engage
in sexual acts outside of their relationship but that they use
self-control to avoid doing so.
Forty undergraduates (32 women, 8 men) participated for a
course requirement. Participants first reported their current
hunger level. Next, they completed the UWIST Mood Adjec-
tive Checklist. Participants later responded to two hypothetical
scenarios in which they were to imagine being in a committed
romantic relationship and to indicate their likelihood of kissing
or having sex with a person other than their partner, using a
scale from 1 (not at all likely) to 9 (very likely). Last, partici-
pants completed 14 items from the Marlowe-Crowne Social
Desirability Scale (Crowne & Marlowe, 1960).
Results and Discussion
Higher self-reported hunger predicted an increased likelihood
of sexual infidelity across the two scenarios, r(40) = .40, p
< .05. The relationship remained when controlling for hedonic
tone, tense-arousal, energetic-arousal, and social desirability
scores, r(34) = .33, p = .05.
Study 4: Societal Hunger Predicts War Killings
Poor self-control and factors that undermine self-control (i.e.,
metabolic problems) increase aggressive thought and behavior
(DeWall et al., 2007; Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007a; Stucke &
Baumeister, 2006). Likewise, some evidence links hunger to
aggression (Gray, 1986; Howard, 2008; Kleinman et al., 1998;
Murphy, Wehler et al., 1998; Reid, 2000). The hypothesis was
that hunger levels, among both children and adults, would pre-
dict war killings across 200 countries, which may potentially
arise from reductions in the self-control of aggressive restraint.
Data used included rates of undernourishment in 2000
(United Nations, 2004) and of children enrolled in primary and
secondary education in 2002 (United Nations, 2004), estima-
tions of the number of people killed in war in 2002 (World
Health Organization, 2004), the human poverty indices for
2002 (United Nations, 2004), and gross national product for
2002 (United Nations, 2004) across 200 countries.
Results and Discussion
Greater undernourishment predicted increased war killings,
r(200) = .37, p < .001. Undernourishment predicted war killings
when controlling for enrollment in primary and secondary edu-
cation, poverty, and gross national product (b = 3.07), t(1, 194)
= 3.79, p < .001. Thus, the more hunger was common to a
country, the more likely war killings were in that country.
One limitation is that the hunger data were from two years
prior to the other data, though hunger tends to be temporally
stable (e.g., undernourishment rates for 1990 and 2000 correlate
highly, r(200) = .81, p < .001, despite the 10-year time span).
One alternative possibility is that the targets of the killing or
other people experienced hunger, rather than the actor.
Study 5: Self-Reported Hunger Predicts
Hunger relates to negativity toward others in the form of
killing, perhaps too for prejudice and bias. Stereotypes and
prejudice arise automatically, and so self-control allows one to
avoid their salience and influence (Devine, 1989). Several
studies are consistent with the idea that impaired self-control
increases prejudice (Gailliot, Plant, Butz, & Baumeister, 2007;
Gordijn, Hindriks, Koomen, Dijksterhuis, & Van Knippenberg,
2004; Govorun & Payne 2006; Inzlicht et al., 2006; Johns, In-
zlicht, & Schmader, 2008; Ketterman, 2004; Muraven, 2008;
Richeson, Trawalter, & Shelton, 2005). The hypothesis for
Study 5 was that higher self-reported hunger would predict
higher prejudice, indicative of reduced self-control.
Ninety-four undergraduates (71 women, 23 men) participated
for a course requirement. Participants first reported their current
hunger level. They later completed the 14-item measure of
social desirability and UWIST Mood Adjective Checklist.
Afterward, participants read two descriptions of crimes that
had been committed and viewed images of a Black and White
suspect. Participants indicated the extent to which they per-
ceived each suspect as being hostile, aggressive, dangerous, and
reckless (negative traits), as well as intelligent, careful, sensi-
tive, and responsible (positive traits) on a scale from 1 (not at
all) to 9 (a lot).
Results and Discussion
Greater self-reported hunger predicted less positive trait rat-
ings for the Black, r(94) = −.17, p < .05 (one-tailed), but not
White, r(94) = −.10, p = .35, suspect. This links hunger to
prejudice. Hunger was unrelated to negative trait ratings for
either the White or Black suspect, ps > .6. The relationship
between hunger and positive trait ratings for the Black suspect
was significant, or marginally significant, when controlling for
either hedonic tone, tense-arousal, energetic arousal, or social
desirability, rs < −.16, ps < .06 (one-tailed).
Study 6: Time Since Last Eating Predicts Death
Another domain relevant to self-control is the accessibility of
thoughts related to death. A variety of stimuli and situations
activate thoughts related to death. When death thoughts arise,
people may use self-control to suppress them or to think about
something else (Arndt, Greenberg, Solomon, Pyszczynski, &
Simon, 1997; Gailliot, Schmeichel, & Baumeister, 2006; Pollak,
1979, 1980; Pyszczynski, Greenberg, & Solomon, 1999). The
hypothesis was that more time since last having eaten—sug-
gesting increased hunger—would predict reduced self-control
in the form of increased death thought accessibility.
Fifty-four undergraduates (39 women, 15 men) participated
for a course requirement. Participants first estimated the amount
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M. T. GAILLIOT
of time since they had last eaten. They next completed the 14-
item measure of social desirability and the UWIST Mood Ad-
jective Checklist. They later were given 6 word fragments (e.g.,
SK_LL) that could be completed with a word either related
(e.g., SKULL) or unrelated (e.g., SKILL) to death.
Results and Discussion
Recalling more time since last having eaten predicted in-
cluding more death-related words in one’s responses, r(54)
= .35, p < .05, suggesting increased death-thought accessibil-
ity and the reduced self-controlled suppression thereof. This
relationship remained when controlling for hedonic tone, tense-
arousal, energetic-arousal, and social desirability scores, r(48)
= .32, p < .05.
Study 7: Self-Reported Hunger Predicts
There is high overlap between impaired self-control and in-
creased passivity (Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Muraven, & Tice,
1998; Vohs & Gailliot, 2006). The link may be that both are
caused by lacking energy needed for effortful thought and be-
havior. Hunger has been linked to passivity, such as to in-
creased television watching and reductions in initiating social
contact, being physically active, and exerting less effort at
school (Alaimo et al., 2001; Chavez & Martinez, 1979; Pollitt,
Golub, & Gorman, 1996; Sigman et al., 2005). The hypothesis
was that higher self-reported hunger would predict greater pas-
sivity, suggesting reduced self-control.
One-hundred sixty-two people walking through a subway
terminal in Amsterdam, Holland participated on a voluntary
basis. As participants approached the terminal exit, a research
assistant asked whether they had eaten breakfast and recorded
whether participants exited via the escalator (the passive option)
or the adjacent stairs.
Results and Discussion
A chi-square analysis indicated that participants who had not
eaten breakfast were more likely to use the escalator than the
stairs, whereas participants who had eaten breakfast were more
likely to use the stairs than the escalator, χ2 = 2.89, p < .05
(one-tailed; see Figure 1). Hunger may be linked to increased
passivity (using the stairs) because energy is low during hunger
and passivity helps conserve energy (see Muraven & Slessareva,
2003; Muraven et al., 2006).
Study 8: Physiological Hunger Predicts Passivity
Whereas Study 7 linked passivity to self-reported hunger,
Study 8 assessed the relationship of passivity and tendencies
toward physiological hunger on a standardized examination—a
glucose tolerance test (i.e., an assessment of blood-glucose
levels after a 9-hour fast at night and ingestion of a glucose
drink in the morning). The prediction was that a greater likely-
hood of hunger (using the criterion used in Study 2) would
predict increased passivity during the past month in the form of
less physical activity.
Ate Breakfast Did Not Eat Breakfast
Number of people who used the stairs or escalator as a
function of having eaten breakfast (Study 7).
Data were from the Third National Health and Nutrition
Examination Survey (NHANES III) 1988-1994 from the Na-
tional Center for Health Statistics. It included 2945 participants
(1475 women, 1475 men). Participants completed a glucose to-
lerance test. They also reported the number of times they had
walked or bicycled during the past 30 days—used as the meas-
ure of passivity in the current study. Education level and house-
hold and family income levels were obtained.
Results and Discussion
Participants in the hungry group (<81.8 mg/dL) reported
having walked or bicycled less (M = 1.60, SD = .50) than did
those in the non-hungry group (M = 1.70, SD = .51), F(1, 2945)
= 11.67, p = .001, d = −.20, r = −.10, controlling for education
and income levels. Increased tendencies to experience hunger
during a glucose tolerance test therefore predicted greater pas-
sivity during the prior month.
Linear glucose levels predicted the extent of walking and bi-
cycling, r(2950) = .11, p < .001, though both glucose level and
hunger group predicted walking and bicycling when simul-
taneously included in a regression model. In this case, both
hunger and linear glucose levels might contribute to passivity,
if the relationships are causal.
Of note, other data from NHANES III that allows the test of
related hypotheses using different data may support null or
contrary conclusions. A more nuanced understanding may be
Study 9: Self-Reported Hunger Predicts
Self-Monitoring and Perceived Task Difficulty
Study 9 tested the hypotheses that greater hunger would pre-
dict two other factors related to reduced self-control—percep-
tions of task difficulty and self-monitoring. Good self-monitor-
ing—paying attention to the self, such as to meet standards for
thought and behavior—is coupled with good self-control (Bau-
meister, Heatherton, & Tice, 1994). If hunger relates negatively
to self-control, then it might relate to reduced monitoring.
When energy is low or capacity is reduced, perceptual biases
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
M. T. GAILLIOT
can emerge such that tasks seem more effortful (Bhalla &
Proffitt, 1999; McCloskey, Ebeling, & Goodwin, 1974; Proffitt,
Stefanucci, Banton, & Epstein, 2003). To the extent that hunger
is associated with low energy availability for tasks or reduced
self-control capacity, then hunger might be associated with
stronger perceptions of the extent to which a given task requires
Twenty-two undergraduates (15 women, 7 men) participated
for extra credit toward a course grade. Participants first watched
a boring, 6-minute video (without sound) of a woman talking.
At its end, they were asked to indicate how difficult it was to
watch the video, using a scale from 1 (not at all) to 7 (very).
Next, participants completed the BMIS as a measure of mood
Participants later completed a task in which they were given
star-shaped stickers and asked to use them to create a pattern on
a sheet of paper. Participants later were asked to recall the
number of stickers they had used (a measure of self-monitoring)
and to indicate the extent to which they had been paying atten-
tion to the number of stickers they used, using a scale from 1
(not at all) to 7 (very much).
Results and Discussion
Greater self-reported hunger predicted increased perceptions
of task difficulty, r(22) = .38, p < .05 (one-tailed). Greater
hunger also predicted larger underestimations of the number of
stickers one used relative to the number of stickers one recalled
having used (reduced self-monitoring), r(22) = −.36, p < .05
(one-tailed). Good self-monitoring improves self-control, and
so it is possible that hunger relates to self-control via changes in
Hunger was unrelated to reports of having paid attention to
the numbers of stickers one had used, p > .77. This indicates
that hunger was related to reduced self-monitoring and that
participants were unaware of any reductions in self-monitoring.
Hunger was not related to mood valence or arousal, ps > .15.
Study 10: Hunger Impairs and Food Improves
Studies 1-9 present correlational evidence linking hunger to
self-control, yet experimental evidence is required to draw any
causal conclusion. The final study manipulated and measured
hunger in an experiment designed to assess for causal evidence
that hunger impairs self-control, relative to eating restoring it.
Twenty-five undergraduates (18 women, 7 men) participated
for a course requirement and were instructed to arrive hungry
without having eaten beforehand. As part of a different experi-
mental test, they first watched a 6-minute video (without sound)
of a woman talking with words appearing in the corner of the
screen. Participants were asked to use self-control by avoiding
looking at the words instead to focus on the woman’s face.
Afterwards, participants randomly assigned to the fed condition
ate a muffin breakfast bar, whereas those in the hunger condi-
tion did not receive food. Participants then completed the BMIS
and indicated their current hunger level in an embedded item.
Last, participants completed the Stroop task (using the same
procedure that was used among the second sample of partici-
pants in Study 2).
Results and Discussion
Participants in the hungry condition made more errors on the
Stroop task (M = 14.48, SD = 14.86) than did those in the fed
condition (M = 3.44, SD = 14.86), F(1, 19) = 3.13, p < .05, d
= .74, r = .35 (one-tailed), when controlling for mood valence,
arousal, and completion time on the Stroop. The difference in
completion time between conditions was nonsignificant, p = .98.
Hunger thus impaired self-control performance.
Hungry participants indicated being more hungry (M = 3.08,
SD = 1.73) than did fed participants (M = 1.46, SD = .78), F(1,
23) = 9.40, p = .005, d = 1.21, r = .52. Hungry and fed par-
ticipants did not differ in Stroop errors when controlling for
hunger levels, p = .18. Likewise, a Goodman (1960) test of
mediation indicated that self-reported hunger mediated the
effect of food (v hunger) on Stroop errors, z = 3.61, p < .001.
These results show direction and causality. Hunger impairs
self-control. Eating improves it.
Across 10 studies, hunger—assessed using multiple meas-
ures—was linked to reduced self-control, as suggested by in-
creased sexual behavior, aggression, prejudice, death-thought
accessibility, passivity, and perceptions of task difficulty, as
well as impaired Stroop performance and reduced self-moni-
toring. Hunger is therefore linked to many important outcomes,
including war killings across the world. A final study demon-
Aside from the three studies that used the Stroop—which
clearly require self-control—much of the work rests on the as-
sumption that self-control was involved in the observed phe-
nomena. The individuals may have experienced little self-con-
trol conflict over their sexual, aggressive, or prejudicial behave-
ior, for example. Another assumption is the direction of the
relationship between hunger and self-control. For example,
though hunger may cause killing, so too may killing cause hun-
ger (Nafziger & Auvinen, 2002), such as among warriors cutoff
from the food supply following attack. Or, other variables may
account for the relationship—individuals prone to skip meals,
for example, may be more likely to demonstrate hunger and re-
duced self-control. Thoughts of death may arise with hunger
because of increased cultural factors or increased accessibility
of negative constructs (e.g., increased salience of phrases such
as, “dying from hunger” or “I am starving”).
Though hunger was defined in various ways, the work did
not assess for mediation (cf. potential mediation by self-moni-
toring and task difficulty, Study 9). Hormones, such as leptin or
grehlin (Malik, McGlone, Bedrossian, & Dagher, 2008; OMIM,
2009), or multiple sources of metabolite, such as glycogen in
the brain or liver (Gailliot, 2008; Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007a),
might be influential. Conservation mechanisms could occur that
attenuate effort or resource expenditure (Muraven & Slessareva,
2003; Muraven, Shmueli, & Burkley, 2006) during hunger.
Other potential mediators include self-control failure providing
emotional relief (Tice, Baumeister, Shmueli, & Muraven, 2007;
Tice, Bratslavsky, & Baumeister, 2001) or escape from the self
(Heatherton & Baumeister, 1991), assuming that hunger is at
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M. T. GAILLIOT
least somewhat aversive or that it might increase self-awareness.
The majority of the current studies included measures of mood
and arousal, yet little evidence emerged to support their having
influence. Self-control might involve increased glucose use in
the brain (Richeson et al., 2003), suggesting that hunger’s re-
ducing self-control may involve provision or conservation of
cerebral glucose (see Messier & White, 1987). It is unclear
whether hunger impairs self-control or reduces its use. Perhaps
increased motivation can overcome the effects of hunger (Mu-
raven & Slessareva, 2003).
Overeating and failures in dieting may be the most common
example of impaired self-control because people sacrifice die-
tary goals so as to maintain self-control energy in other ways. If
one must fail at self-control, then it is best to fail at dietary
goals so as to uphold other standards.
Hunger may be relevant to the phenomena of self-control use
depleting glucose and impairing subsequent self-control (Gail-
liot & Baumeister, 2007a; Gailliot et al., 2007). Perhaps glu-
cose depletion activates hunger sensations that function to re-
plenish energy needed for self-control. Indeed, attentional bi-
ases to food have been found to occur after self-control use
More comprehensive conclusions may be made when mak-
ing connections among individual studies. Hunger was linked
to increased death thoughts (Study 6), prejudice (Study 4), and
war killings (Study 4). Hunger could impair self-control so as
to increase death thought and prejudice, thereby predisposing
toward aggression against outgroups (see Pyszczynski et al.,
Energy for biological and psychological processes is limited,
with high activity for one process potentially reducing energy
available for others (Gailliot, Hildebrandt, Eckel, & Baumeister,
2010). To the extent that hunger impairs self-control because of
reduced energy availability, then it is plausible that hunger may
influence energy-consuming processes other than self-control,
such as immune activity or reproduction. A null, or even posi-
tive, relationship between hunger and self-control may be ac-
counted for by reductions in other processes, such as good self-
control being maintained during times of hunger at the expense
of comprised immune functioning.
One conundrum is how people suffering from anorexia (self-
starvation) maintain the self-control to avoid eating. Anorexia
is associated with increased dopamine in the brain (Barry &
Klawans, 1976) and opioid activity in cerebrospinal fluid (Kaye,
Pickar, Naber, & Ebert, 1982). Both dopamine and opioids
increase positive feelings, which might help to sustain extreme
eating restraint despite incurred hunger (see Tice, Baumeister,
Shmueli, & Muraven, 2007).
Self-control is among the most distinctively human and im-
portant capacities. Hunger might impair life in both trivial and
significant ways—for one billion people chronically and seven
billion at least temporarily. Broken promises, hate, and fighting
may be the result. The, perhaps hyperbolical, action of ensuring
adequate distribution of food across the globe could prove to be
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