You Spend More When Shopping Hungry

Shopping bagsYou’ve probably heard that it’s a bad idea to buy groceries in hunger mode. When you enter hungry, food items seem more attractive and you’re more willing to go through great lengths to get at items that could fulfill that hunger. Hunger even increases your desire for things that could help you get food, like money or even overweight partners who might have more access to food. But new research has found that the increased spending applies to items completely unrelated to food as well.

How does hunger change our behavior?

Past research had found that hunger didn’t influence how much people liked non-food objects. Being hungry doesn’t make you like key chains more, for example. But the researchers believed that the findings of this past research might be incorrect. They hypothesized that hunger sends someone into an “acquisition” frame of mind since being hungry activates the parts of your brain involved in finding and getting food. The idea was that the desire to find and acquire things spilled over into other areas of life when a person was hungry because those parts of the brain were already triggered. The team thought that might translate into a person buying more when hungry, even if what they bought wasn’t food.

How did the team test their acquisition hypothesis?

To test this, the researchers conducted four studies. In the first study, the researchers flashed 22 words and 22 gibberish non-words briefly in front of test subjects and asked them to write down each word after they saw it. If they weren’t sure what the word was, they put down an “X.” Nine of the words were related to acquiring things (e.g. want, obtain, gain), four were related to hunger (e.g. hunger, starve appetite), and the rest were unrelated. The hungrier a participant was the better they identified and copied down both the acquisition words and the hunger words compared to the other words, showing their brain was paying more attention to these ideas.

In the second experiment, the team went to a café and recruited people either before or after they had eaten there. They asked them to rate how much they liked 10 products or experiences and then how much they would like to have the 10 products or experiences. Among the 10 items were things both related and unrelated to food. The researchers found that hungry people liked food items more than non-food items, but wanted to acquire food items just as much as non-food items. It seemed that being hungry made you want to visit a spa just as much as it made you want to buy a cookie even if you liked the cookie more.

How did this translate into the real world?

These two studies confirmed to the team that people were more interested in acquiring things when they were hungry, even if the things available weren’t food. They then wanted to test this idea directly. They gathered 88 people and told them they needed to decide how many binder clips to order for their office. Half had fasted for four hours before the study, while the rest ate a small loaf cake from a nearby bakery. They then rated how much they liked binder clips and also rated how hungry they were. While hunger didn’t influence how much they liked binder clips, it did dramatically increase the size of the binder clip order. The hungriest opted for 70% more binder clips than their satisfied counterparts.

In a final study, the researchers went out to a mall and talked to 81 people who had just finished shopping at a department store that carried mostly non-food items. They asked them to rate their hunger and then looked at their receipts. They found that hungrier shoppers bought more non-food items and spent more overall than those who weren’t hungry when they went shopping regardless of how much time they spent in the store or what their mood was when they were shopping.

How does this apply to me?

You might avoid buying the week’s groceries on an empty stomach, but chances are good that you don’t pay much attention to how hungry you are when you shop for other things. Being aware of when you last ate and how hungry you are could help save you some money in purchases that you’re only really making to fulfill that urge to acquire, regardless of whether it’s food or something else.