How Do Sleeplessness and Insomnia Sabotage Decision Making?

Even minor sleep deficits can thwart your ability to make astute decisions.

Posted May 08, 2015

Photographee.eu/Shutterstock
Source: Photographee.eu/Shutterstock

Sleep researchers at Washington State University (WSU) have created a laboratory experiment that allows them to simulate how excessive sleep loss impacts decision making in crisis situations. Their findings provide a new understanding of how sleeplessness thwarts your ability to make astute decisions in everyday life and crisis situations. 

The May 2015 study, “Feedback Blunting: Total Sleep Deprivation Impairs Decision Making that Requires Updating Based on Feedback,” was published in the journal SLEEP.

In recent history, there have been numerous earth-shattering accidents caused by sleep-deprived operators making human errors. For example: the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, the grounding of the Exxon Valdez oil tanker, and the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle were all partially caused by excessive sleep deficits, which led to faulty decision making.

Traditionally, it’s been difficult for sleep scientists to mimic real-world sleep deprivation in the sterile and controlled environment of a laboratory. In a press release, John Hinson, professor of psychology at WSU, describes what made their experiment different, 

A novel aspect of this study was using a simple laboratory task that captures the essential aspect of real-world decision making of adapting to new information in a changing situation. Prior studies of sleep loss and decision making have not realized how important adapting to changing circumstances is in determining when sleep loss will lead to decision making failures.

For the WSU experiment, thirteen of the participants were randomly selected to undergo 62 hours without sleep while the other half of the group was allowed to rest. For six days and nights, the participants lived in a hotel-like lab where they performed a specially designed reversal learning task to test their ability to use feedback to guide future decisions.

The results reveal that no matter how hard a sleep-deprived person tried to make the right decision, sleeplessness created short-circuits in the brain that prevented them from making the right choice. This study provides new insights into how sleep deprivation can lead to fatal errors of judgement in real-life situations.

Sleep Deprivation Creates a Double Whammy for Dieters

Two other studies on the effects of sleep deficits and decision making revealed that insomnia can create a double whammy by slowing metabolism while also making someone more likely to crave, and consume, highly caloric junk foods.

In the first study, a team of researchers from the University of South Carolina and Arizona State University found that when someone's normal sleeping hours are shortened by as little as 120 minutes it can dramatically slow metabolism. The researchers concluded that short-term sleep loss of just two hours can have adverse effects on glucose metabolism by increasing insulin concentrations.

In the second study, researchers in Sweden found that sleep deprivation derails an individual's food purchasing choices by impairing higher-level thinking while simultaneously increasing impulsivity, hunger, and cravings. In a press release, first author Colin Chapman, MSc, of Uppsala University described the study—and a hypothesis that was proven true—saying:

We hypothesized that sleep deprivation's impact on hunger and decision making would make for the 'perfect storm' with regard to shopping and food purchasing—leaving individuals hungrier and less capable of employing self-control and higher-level decision-making processes to avoid making impulsive, calorie-driven purchases.

Conclusion: How Much Sleep Do You Need? It Depends on Your Age. 

Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstok
Source: Wavebreakmedia/Shutterstok

As of 2015, sleep experts have new recommendations for the average amount of sleep someone should get within a 24-hour period. The new guidelines include broader sleep ranges for most age groups. Below is a summary of the 2015 National Sleep Foundation's sleep recommendations per day:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): Sleep range narrowed to 14-17 hours each day (previously it was 12-18)
  • Infants (4-11 months): Sleep range widened two hours to 12-15 hours (previously it was 14-15)
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): Sleep range widened by one hour to 11-14 hours (previously it was 12-14)
  • Preschoolers (3-5): Sleep range widened by one hour to 10-13 hours (previously it was 11-13)
  • School age children (6-13): Sleep range widened by one hour to 9-11 hours (previously it was 10-11)
  • Teenagers (14-17): Sleep range widened by one hour to 8-10 hours (previously it was 8.5-9.5)
  • Younger adults (18-25): Sleep range is 7-9 hours (new age category)
  • Adults (26-64): Sleep range did not change and remains 7-9 hours
  • Older adults (65+): Sleep range is 7-8 hours (new age category)

"This is the first time that any professional organization has developed age-specific recommended sleep durations based on a rigorous, systematic review of the world scientific literature relating sleep duration to health, performance and safety," Charles A. Czeisler, PhD, MD, chief of sleep and circadian disorders at Brigham and Women's Hospital at the Harvard Medical School, said in a press release.

Do you ever take power naps? If you suffer from chronic sleep deprivation at night, try orchestrating your daily routine to include a nap. Taking a nap is an easy way to counter the detriments of sleep deprivation, reduce sleep deficits, and improve your decision making abilities.

If you'd like read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

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