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APA Monitor: The Psychology of Hunger

The October 2013 issue of the American Psychological Association‘s Monitor on Psychology is now online. This month’s Time Capsule section features an article by David Baker and Natacha Keramidas on the Minnesota Starvation Experiment: “The Psychology of Hunger.”

In the 1940s, at the height of World War Two, researchers at the University of Minnesota recruited 36 young men to participate in a nearly year long study of the physical and psychological effects of starvation. Over the course of the study the men were charged with losing 25 percent of their normal body weight. The hope was that the findings of such research could be used in war related relief efforts. Needless to say, participation in this study was difficult. As Baker and Keramidas describe,

 

During the semi-starvation phase the changes were dramatic. Beyond the gaunt appearance of the men, there were significant decreases in their strength and stamina, body temperature, heart rate and sex drive. The psychological effects were significant as well. Hunger made the men obsessed with food. They would dream and fantasize about food, read and talk about food and savor the two meals a day they were given. They reported fatigue, irritability, depression and apathy. Interestingly, the men also reported decreases in mental ability, although mental testing of the men did not support this belief.

For some men, the study proved too difficult. Data from three subjects were excluded as a result of their breaking the diet and a fourth was excluded for not meeting expected weight loss goals.

The men and the study became subjects of national interest, even appearing in Life magazine in 1945. But in some ways, world events overtook the study. The war in Europe ended on May 8, 1945, barely halfway through the starvation phase of the experiment. Keys and the men worried that the data they had sacrificed for would not get to relief workers and the starving people they wished to serve in time to help them. Relief efforts were underway and there was no clear guide for rehabilitating those who were starving.

The article can be read in full here.

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