Can hunger make us more forgiving?
Rob Henderson :
Many of us notice that we act differently when we're hungry. You might get more easily irritated or find it more challenging to focus. A new study has found a surprising way that hunger influences us: It makes us less morally disapproving.
The study, led by Carmen Vicario, explored how motivational states affect morality. Specifically, they were interested in how hunger might influence moral judgments. Earlier research has found, for example, that watching films of ethical violations caused participants to eat less after viewing the videos. Watching actions they disapproved of reduced their appetite.
The paper, called "The Effect of Hunger and Satiety in the Judgment of Ethical Violations" questions whether the reverse is also true. Could a reduced appetite make people more disapproving of moral violations?
They invited 53 participants to their study and divided them into two groups. For Group 1, the researchers asked them to fast for about 12 hours (they joined the study after a night of rest but before eating breakfast). Next, the hungry participants read a series of moral dilemmas such as the following:
"Mr. Jones is part of a group of ecologists who are living in the jungle. The entire group, which includes eight children, has been taken hostage by rebel forces. One of the rebels takes a liking to Mr. Jones and tells him that his leader plans to kill them all the following morning. The rebel is willing to help Mr. Jones and the children escape, but to guarantee his trust, he wants Mr. Jones to kill one of the fellow hostages. If he accepts to kill a hostage while being filmed, he and all the children will be set free. If he refuses to do it, all of them will die the next morning."
Another dilemma participants read:
"Mr. Jones is fishing by the sea. He sees a group of tourists sailing for a nearby island. Soon after their departure, Mr. Jones hears over the radio that there is a violent storm approaching that will hit the tourists' boat. The only way he can warn them is by stealing a nearby speedboat. The boat belongs to a spiteful old man from the town. If Mr. Jones does not steal the boat, the storm will catch the tourists and their boat could sink. If he steals it, the boat owner will bring charges against him."
After reading such dilemmas, people provided their moral disapproval ratings, indicating how much they disapproved of the actions of the characters. They also completed a report indicating how hungry they felt.
Next, researchers provided participants with snacks. After eating, the participants read more moral dilemmas and provided their moral disapproval ratings ranging from "not at all" to "extremely disapproving."
For Group 2, researchers asked them to fast for 12 hours (again, joining the study after a night of rest but before eating breakfast). They then provided snacks for the participants. Next, participants read the same set of moral dilemmas as Group 1 and provided their moral disapproval ratings. They also reported how hungry they felt.
Then, Group 2 returned the following day, again fasting for 12 hours and provided their responses to more moral dilemmas. Both groups participated in the study after having fasted and after having eaten. Group 1 fasted, then responded to moral dilemmas, and then ate and responded to more. Group 2 ate, then responded to moral dilemmas, and then fasted and responded to more. In this way, fasting and eating were counterbalanced.
Researchers found something interesting: Hungry participants were more forgiving. Another scenario from the study:
"A viral epidemic is killing millions of people across the world. Dr. Jones has developed two substances in his home laboratory. He knows that one of them is a vaccine and the other is a fatal poison, but he is not sure which one. He also knows that the other agent is deadly. Dr. Jones has two patients with him under his care, and the only way to identify the vaccine is to inject each one with a different substance. If Dr. Jones injects the substances, one of his patients will die but he will save millions of lives with the vaccine. If he does not, the epidemic will continue spreading, and people will die."
Participants were more forgiving of Dr. Jones and the other characters they read about if their appetite was greater. People who had recently eaten were more disapproving. As the researchers put it, research suggests "bodily states might affect mental states." When we are in a motivational state of hunger, we become less morally disapproving. Morality, this research suggests, might be a luxury that only those who have their needs met can afford.
The researchers conclude, "More practically, if you intend to apologize to someone for a wrong you have committed, make sure you do it before breakfast."
(Rob Henderson is a Ph.D. student at the University of Cambridge. He received a B.S. in Psychology from Yale University and is a veteran of the U.S. Air Force).