Photo by Jo McCulty, Ohio State University
News flash: Low blood sugar can make you cranky. And being cranky makes people more likely to get angry with their spouse.
At first this conclusion from a new study in PNAS seems like another example of Duh! science. But the study also seems slightly sinister.
As lead author Brad Bushman of The Ohio State University says in the university’s press release, “People can relate to this idea that when they get hungry, they get cranky.”
Some people even use the slang term “hangry” to describe the feeling. (Note: I’m not a fan of the word because people could think you’re affecting a cockney accent.)
As most of us know, being hungry can make family members unhappy campers. This is true whether you’re dealing with spouses or kids.
Basically, our brains and the rest of our bodies need fuel in the form of glucose. When we don’t get enough energy, we have a harder time practicing self-control and otherwise regulating our emotions.
Bushman’s work explores how this idea affects the potential for domestic violence. Other researchers for the study include C. Nathan DeWall of the University of Kentucky, Richard S. Pond of the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, and Michael D. Hanus of Ohio State.
The team’s research methods met the applicable requirements for ethical research with human subjects. Nonetheless, it seems designed to encourage vicarious violence.
Every night for three weeks, 107 couples enrolled in the study stuck pins in voodoo dolls representing their spouses. The angrier people felt, the more pins they would use. And the lower the blood sugar levels were—as measured by blood glucose meters—the more likely subjects were to be angry with their spouses.
In another part of the study, spouses in separate lab rooms competed to see who could react faster when a target on the screen turned red. The reward was getting to blast the spouse with a loud sound. The lower someone’s blood sugar was, the more likely they were to choose a louder and longer blast.
In fact, spouses weren’t getting tortured with loud sound blasts. But test subjects didn’t know that at the time.
Likewise, pricking pins into voodoo dolls didn’t physically hurt anyone. Yet something seems wrong about egging spouses on to hurt each other—even if it’s only in effigy.
The research does provide interesting insights into understanding relationships and domestic violence. Perhaps counseling could incorporate more thorough health screening and nutritional guidance for some people.
Being aware of the research’s results might even help ordinary couples cope better. “Before you have a difficult conversation with your spouse, make sure you’re not hungry,” Bushman advises in the press release.
Ideally, future studies will track angry feelings in a way that teaches healthy coping skills at the same time. Even fake violence against one’s partner seems somewhat scary.
Grabbing a glass of milk or a cookie might help in the short run. But it’s far from being a complete answer to the problem of domestic violence.