Hanger and the loss of free will

Second-year Psychology students participating in the University Honours College follow a workshop on Blogging Science, in which they learn to communicate science to the general public, by means of informing, giving an opinion, and relating issues in science to issues in society. This year a selection of these written blog posts is published on Mindwise. Today’s post is by Charlie Albietz.


My family and I love my sister, Heike. She is very warm-hearted, loves to dance, and enjoys a good laugh. All in all, she is a delight to be around. When she has eaten, that is. When Heike has not been fed, she tends to mutate into someone else. The corners of her mouth point so far down, you would think someone is hanging weights from them. If looks could kill, her glare would send you six feet under and your survival instinct would compel you to seek shelter until she has finished grazing.

The modern term for this state of hunger-induced anger is conveniently simple – hanger. I would argue that hanger has been experienced by most people, either on themselves or someone around them. It can change the most easygoing, mellow individual into a nourishment-craving tyrant and, according to recent research, it can be the instigator of certain aggressive behaviours. Bushman, DeWall, Pond, & Hanus, (2014) came up with an ingenious, slightly barbaric way of measuring aggression in married couples. Instead of asking the participants directly if they were hungry, they measured their individual glucose levels. Glucose is our bodies main source of energy and is stored and transported in our bloodstream. Lower food intake, lower glucose. Simple. Along with the rest of our body, lower levels of glucose negatively affect our brain, including the brain area that is responsible for our self-control (Gailliot & Baumeister, 2007).

Returning to the experiment, Bushman’s participants were asked to stick up to 51 needles into voodoo dolls of their partner and shock them with loud noises as a way of testing their aggressive impulses. Bushman and colleagues found that those with lower glucose levels stuck both more pins into their miniature spouses and blasted them with louder and longer sounds. Their results suggest that not only should you hide every sharp object when your significant other is hungry, but also that it is not only our personality and values that direct our behaviour.

However, it is not only hanger that can influence us in ways we would not expect. Psychology has amassed a collection of such examples over the years. We tend to throw more litter on the ground if the ground is already nicely littered (Cialdini, Reno & Kallgren, 1990), we are more likely to buy a fridge from a door-to-door salesman if he has previously convinced us to buy a toaster (Freedman & Fraser, 1966) and our decision-making skills improve? as our urge to run to the nearest toilet increases (Tuk, Trampe & Warlop, 2011). Basically, the majority of psychological theories state how we are, on average, more or less likely to do something if a certain stimulus, personality trait or value is or is not there. The question that subsequently arises is whether we have a say in the matter as to how we behave at all.

We often hear concerns when new findings, such as the one on hanger, gain popularity in the scientific community as to whether it leaves room for free will. Thus having the capacity to make our own choices based on desires, values and principles or more in general, that what distinguishes one individual from the other.. However, as we learn more and more about the extent to which we are influenced by stimuli and bodily senses, free will increasingly seem to resemble fiction rather than fact. Ent and Baumeister (2014), found that the belief in free will diminished in healthy individuals when their bodies took control by either the need to urinate, the desire to sleep or the desire to have sex, with each desire forcing (or at least, persuading) the individual to see to it.

In the scientific community, there are rigorous debates regarding the subject. Reductionists would argue that everything we experience is only due to changes in our biological and chemical structures. In this case, viewing an attractive person releases certain chemicals and gets certain systems going that would lead us to talk to the person, or in my case, never talk to them. On the opposing side of the argument, emergentism claims that the inner workings of the brain and body work together to produce consciousness in a kind of Gestalt Theory scenario (i.e. the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts yada yada) and that consciousness has at least a certain level of mental causation (i.e. events that happen in the mind can change the course of events outside of it). Still, the founders of the theory are reluctant to defend the term free will directly. How could they though when hanger pushed couples into voodooing their partners for Christ’s sake!

So then, is there enough evidence to say free will doesn’t exist? Well, of course not. We all know that no amount of evidence is enough to claim anything for certain in the world of psychology, but let’s imagine it was for a moment. What would it mean for humanity? Well, not much, except for people wanting to assert their innocence in legal or marital issues, there would be little difference to life in general. There are, however, some benefits to knowing the limitations of our human capacities. If we are aware of our shortcomings, we could use them to an advantage. I, for one, always carry around chocolate bar when I’m with my sister to avoid being stabbed and can recommend the use of this fail-safe strategy to my readers as well.



References and Relevant Publications

Bushman, B. J., DeWall, C. N., Pond, R. J., & Hanus, M. D. (2014). Low glucose relates to greater aggression in married couples. PNAS Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America111(17), 6254-6257. doi:10.1073/pnas.1400619111

Cialdini, R. B., Reno, R. R., & Kallgren, C. A. (1990). A focus theory of normative conduct: Recycling the concept of norms to reduce littering in public places. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology58(6), 1015-1026. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.58.6.1015

Ent, M. R., & Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Embodied free will beliefs: Some effects of physical states on metaphysical opinions. Consciousness And Cognition: An International Journal27147-154. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2014.05.001

Freedman, J. L., & Fraser, S. C. (1966). Compliance without pressure: The foot-in-the-door technique. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology4(2), 195-202. doi:10.1037/h0023552

Gailliot, M. T., & Baumeister, R. F. (2007). The physiology of willpower: Linking blood glucose to self-control. Personality And Social Psychology Review11(4), 303-327. doi:10.1177/1088868307303030

Tuk, M. A., Trampe, D., & Warlop, L. (2011). Inhibitory spillover: Increased urination urgency facilitates impulse control in unrelated domains. Psychological Science22(5), 627-633. doi:10.1177/0956797611404901

Charlie is a passionate student currently active in field of dynamic systems and complexity psychology supervised by Dr. R. Cox. He claims to have become interested in studying Psychology by watching drunk bar guests argue over whose turn it was to pay the bill.

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