The Washington Post

Hungry? Avoid serious conversations with your spouse.

(Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Raise your hand if you've had a stupid fight with your husband or wife when you were hungry and cranky. Right, I thought so.

Well, new research backs up the idea that when you're hungry you have less self-control, and when you have less self-control, you tend to be more aggressive with intimate partners.

Even more interesting  is the way Ohio State scientists, led by Brad J. Bushman, a professor of psychology and communication, conducted their experiment. They gave voodoo dolls -- yes voodoo dolls -- to 107 married, heterosexual couples, and asked them to put anywhere from zero to 51 pins in the dolls every day for 21 days, depending on how angry they were with their spouses. The couples had been married an average of 12 years and were paid $50 per person for their trouble.

Said spouses were not present for the voodoo ceremony. (That might have caused multiple divorces, in my opinion, and ruined the study). For the same period, participants tested their blood sugar with a small meter before breakfast and before bedtime each day.

As they predicted, people with higher blood sugar levels stuck fewer pins in the dolls, even when researchers controlled for relationship satisfaction and gender. Women did more pin-sticking than men did, but the numbers were not significant.

But wait, it gets better. After 21 days, researchers brought the couples in to compete in a game of who could press a button faster when a computer signal flashed red. The winner was allowed to blast the loser with loud noise through headphones, using lovely sounds like fingernails scratching a chalkboard, dentist drills and ambulance sirens, up to 105 decibels.

The couples were actually playing against the computer, not each other, so they would have equal chances of blasting and being the blastee. But they didn't know that. Again, the people with the lowest average night-time blood sugar sent louder and longer blasts of punishing noise at their spouses.

There is a serious side to all this, of course. "People are often the most aggressive against the people to whom they are closest—intimate partners," the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences noted. "Intimate partner violence might be partly a result of poor self-control. Self-control of aggressive impulses requires energy, and much of this energy is provided by glucose derived from the food we eat."

The only couples we don't have to worry about are the ones who survived Bushman's experiment. Anyone who could do that has a pretty strong marriage.

Lenny Bernstein covers health and medicine. He started as an editor on the Post’s National Desk in 2000 and has worked in Metro and Sports.



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Lenny Bernstein · April 17, 2014

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