If you stick a pin in a voodoo doll representing someone you know — your spouse, for example — that person will experience pain in precisely the same place, according to those who believe in this form of magic. Scientists take a more skeptical view of voodoo, but one researcher at Ohio State University has found voodoo dolls very helpful in determining how much more hostile and aggressive married people become when they're hungry.
Brad Bushman, a professor of communication and psychology at OSU, calls this condition being "hangry" (hungry + angry), and he determined that hangry people stick more pins in a voodoo doll of their spouse than those who have higher levels of glucose in their blood.
"People can relate to this idea that when they get hungry, they get cranky," he said in a statement when his paper was published recently in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "We found that being hangry can affect our behavior in a bad way, even in our most intimate relationships."
Bushman and his colleagues measured blood glucose levels of 107 married couples in the morning before breakfast and in the evening before bedtime for 21 consecutive days, and discovered that low levels predicted greater anger.
They determined this by giving all the participants a voodoo doll representing their spouse at the start of the experiment. They also gave each participant 51 pins. At the end of each day during the experiment, participants were invited to stick pins in the doll to represent how angry they felt toward their spouse.
In general, participants with lower blood glucose levels felt angrier and stuck more pins into their voodoo dolls.
"Even those who reported they had good relationships with their spouses were more likely to express anger if their blood glucose levels were lower," Bushman said.
The participants also competed with their spouse in a computer game that tested which of them could press a button faster when a target square on the screen turned red. Winners got to blast their spouses, seated out of sight, with a loud noised delivered through headphones.
The participants weren't really playing against their spouses. They were playing against the computer, which let them win about half the time, and the blast of noise they delivered never reached the ears of their spouses.
Still, the results showed that participants with lower levels of blood glucose, including those who claimed their marriages were satisfying overall, sent louder and longer blasts of noise to their spouses.
Also, those who stuck larger numbers of pins into the voodoo doll representing their spouse also tended to deliver louder and longer blasts of noise.
What does the level of glucose in a person's blood have to do with irritability and aggression?
Bushman suggests that the hostility and aggression that erupt in many marriages represent a failure of impulse control. The brain, which inhibits behavior, consumes huge amounts of glucose, so when glucose levels drop, the brain has less energy available to control behavior.
"Even though the brain is only 2 percent of our body weight, it consumes about 20 percent of our calories," Bushman said. "It is a very demanding organ when it comes to energy. So before you have a difficult conversation with your spouse, make sure you're not hungry."
Tom Valeo writes on health matters. Email him at [email protected]