Lack of Food Might Make You Better at Making Decisions
Many people who have used intermittent fasting and other hunger-inducing dietary strategies have noticed some interesting effects. Many of these claims may even seem counterintuitive, such as more energy or less hunger over time.
A recent study in PLOS ONE considered whether possible improvements in decision-making ability may arise from hunger.
What the research says:
- Subjects who were hungry made better long-term choices than sated subjects.
- Subjects who were hungry and had smaller appetites fared best on gambling tests.
The researchers were particularly interested in fasting's frequently reported effect of greater focus and mental acuity. From a primitive perspective, the theory that not eating might increase the willingness to take on greater risk makes sense. I’m hungry and my hunger leads me to make ever more perilous decisions to obtain food. It’s possible this intuitive decision-making might even apply to a broader range of activities. If I’m hungry, maybe I’ll be better at making risky financial decisions, too.
The researchers of the study noted delaying eating can put a person in what they referred to as a hot state. A hot state is one in which either emotions or physical drives (like hunger) are piqued. For example, people have reported a powerful desire for money while hungry.
"The researchers indicated that these circumstances in which our innate drives are primed cause us to rely on our gut. This primal instinct tends to support accurate decision-making."
Hot states have a long clinical history of increasing impulsivity, which then affects the ability to make decisions. The researchers in this study proposed an alternate viewpoint. They hypothesized that in a certain set of circumstances, a hot state may actually improve decision-making. In some situations, we need to make complex decisions that do not have certain outcomes. Many financial and business decisions are like this. Hunger has never before been tested on these specific types of decisions.
The new research was a combination of three different studies:
- Study One: A gambling task that compared hungry participants to sated participants (30 subjects total).
- Study Two: A gambling task that compared participants with big appetites to subjects with smaller appetities (50 subjects total).
- Study Three: Hungry and sated subjects were compared once again, but in this case the researchers looked at 27 situations. The subjects chose a monetary reward that was either immediate or delayed.
Hunger outperformed a fed state in complex decisionmaking with uncertain outcomes. The researchers indicated that these are circumstances in which our innate drives cause us to rely on our gut. This primal instinct supported accurate decision-making.
In the first two studies, the gambling task was performed better by the hungry people and those with smaller appetites. In the third study, the hungry subjects proved to be better at resisting large and tempting fiscal rewards that weren’t beneficial in the long run.
So, as the title of the study - Always Gamble on an Empty Stomach - implies, you might be better at making complex decisions when you are hungry. Bear in mind, an empty stomach alone might not be enough. The actual state of desiring food or having a big appetite along with hunger is most important.
1. Denise de Ridder, et. al., “Always Gamble on an Empty Stomach: Hunger Is Associated with Advantageous Decision Making,” PLoS ONE 2014, 9(10)
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