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Before-Lunch Liberals: Hunger Boosts Support for Welfare Programs

New research from Europe finds people in need of a meal express more positive views regarding those receiving public assistance.
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What’s your opinion of people on welfare? Lazy moochers who feed off productive members of society? Or neighbors who are in trouble and need our help?

Your answer may depend on whether you have eaten lunch.

That’s the conclusion of newly published research, which finds hunger strengthens people’s support for the social safety net.

Across four experiments conducted in two countries (Denmark and the U.K.), a research team found people in need of a meal are more supportive of social-welfare assistance. This attitude, the researchers argue in the journal Political Psychology, is a product of our distant evolutionary past—a time when sharing resources literally meant the difference between life and death.

"It is plausible that natural selection sculpted the human psychology to respond to hunger with motivations and behavior that would help the individual acquire food through means other than foraging."

A fair number of us, it seems, are before-lunch liberals.

The research team, led by Michael Bang Petersen of Denmark’s Aarhus University, provides evidence in the form of some surprisingly simple studies. One of them looked at answers people gave to a 2007 Danish National Election online survey, comparing people who filled it out between 11 a.m. and noon and those who did so between 1 and 2 p.m.

By tracking their responses to such statements as “Too many get social welfare without needing it” and “Many of the unemployed don’t really want to find work,” the researchers found those answering shortly before lunchtime were “significantly more positively disposed toward welfare recipients than post-lunch respondents.”

A second study looked at results of a 2010 survey of a nationally representative sample of Danes, which exclusively focused on attitudes toward welfare recipients. The 155 respondents were asked whether they thought of such people as lazy and/or unintelligent. They were also asked whether their overriding attitude toward welfare recipients was anger or compassion.

Again, responses provided between 11 a.m. and noon were compared to those given between 1 and 2 p.m. “The pre-lunch respondents were less negatively disposed toward welfare recipients than the post-lunch respondents,” the researchers report.

Another survey featured 766 Danish university students, who were asked about their attitudes toward people on public assistance. They also answered the direct question, “How hungry do you feel right now?” “As expected,” the researchers write, “hungrier subjects express less negative views.”

Petersen and his colleagues explain these results from an evolutionary psychology viewpoint. “Anthropological observations suggest that our ancestors would regularly have experienced states of hunger in which they were not able to feed themselves and their families on the basis of returns from individual foraging,” they note. “Given this, it is plausible that natural selection sculpted the human psychology to respond to hunger with motivations and behavior that would help the individual acquire food through means other than foraging.”

Such as sharing with other members of one’s community.

Of course, sharing is only one way of obtaining someone else’s food. Another is simply taking it (if you can get away with it). Petersen and his colleagues found evidence of that impulse as well, in a study performed at a British university.

In it, a group of undergraduates played something called the “taking game,” in which they declared how much money they wanted to take from another player, with the understanding that if they got too greedy they’d get nothing. “Participants in the pre-lunchtime session attempted to take significantly more than participants in the post-lunchtime session,” the researchers write.

So it seems hunger works two ways on our psyche, simultaneously making us more aggressive in obtaining resources (which, in our society, translates to money), even as we hedge our bets by expressing support for social welfare programs. When something as vital as food is at stake, you want to keep all of your options open.

“Ancestral foraging was most likely characterized by frequent random reversals in fortune, with potentially fatal consequences,” Petersen and his colleagues note. They argue that, while our personal situations are much more stable today, that early insecurity has implanted deep within us an aversion to risk, and this prompts us to support programs that benefit others.

An effect that intensifies when our stomachs are rumbling.