Lack of sleep can make you unethical

May 19, 2011 | By | 8 Replies More

According to this report by Jena McGregor of the Washington Post,

lack of sleep led not just to poor performance on tasks that require “innovative thinking, risk analysis, and strategic planning”—though studies have shown all those to be true—but also to increased deviant and unethical behavior in both groups. Examples included rudeness, inappropriate responses and attempts to take more money than they’d earned.


Category: Good and Evil, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (8)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    Perhaps because self-control is a muscle? Behaving well probably requires a lot of effort and inhibition, so it makes sense that exhaustion could promote unethical acts. Maybe even hunger would do the same.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Erika: I've read several research results suggesting that lack of sleep correlates with over-eating. To the extent that doing the right thing relies on inhibitory circuits of the brain, acting ethically would seem to benefit from the focus and concentration that sleep brings.

  2. Jim Razinha says:

    {I hope the link I inserted was the one you wanted.}

    I'm raising the skeptical shields on this one, particularly the "but also to increased deviant and unethical behavior in both groups" part. "Deviant"? Sure seems an odd word choice. Further, it seems that the business management researchers can really only make the claims about the two groups – nurses and students – which are hardly a significant cross-section to extrapolate such findings.

    For more years than I can recall, my wife has been telling me I don't get enough sleep (she's right, but habits are habitual and habit-forming). Given that I average less than six hours and I already have an ethical barometer that challenges some (on the high end, not the deviant one), I wonder where I'd chart if I got eight hours. And I'm confident that if my coworkers were surveyed, they would not find anything rude in my behavior – even the contractors who are behind on jobs.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    Jim: I see the most terrible examples of immorality as based on lack of empathy, which often stems from the lack of attention to others. Attention is a precious and rare commodity. Therefore, lack of sleep can be seen as leading to lack of attention/empathy. This dovetails well with Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." She states (and I agree) that the worst forms of evil are not those conducted by mean and nasty people. The gravest most widespread forms of evil are caused by the failure to think. That's what intrigued me about this connection with sleep and ethics. See here for more on Arendt and attention:… and also see here:

    And I'm not accusing you of being immoral just because you are (it seems) sleep deprived. You might have more focus and more willingness to be self-critical than most folks in your grogginess (if you are groggy).

  4. Jim Razinha says:

    The chain of logic seems stretched to me: lack of sleep to lack of attention to decreased empathy to increased immorality (??) to increased evil? I think the weakest link there is the attention/empathy correlation. Kind of iffy on the empathy/immorality as well.

    Now, "acting ethically would seem to benefit…" makes sense. Implying the reverse, does not make as much sense.

    To me.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      I haven't seen the evidence, Jim. This is all my speculation. I would suspect, though, that a society of well-rested humans would be more functional than those lacking sleep.

  5. Jim Razinha says:

    No argument on that (being more functional). Electric lights ushered in sleep deprivation…we have recovered. I was in Boy Scouts for a while and winter camping was always unsettling – we'd think it was late, but really only around 8:00 p.m. And rising early with the bright sunrise? Weird feeling.

    My idea of camping now is a Motel 6.

  6. Krissy says:

    I was really interested in reading this article, but can’t figure out how to find the link to it. (I’m sleep deprived. lol) I did get to read enough of the synopsis though and all the comments. I totally agree with what Erich is saying. I have personally experienced all these effects he mentions.

    A few months after my daughter was born, I couldn’t sleep at all. I had never experienced insomnia until after giving birth. Basically, not sleeping causes anxiety and after a few nights of no sleep I was too afraid to take a sleeping pill. Which is why it got out of hand and went on so long. Hyperthyroidism can make it impossible to sleep at all. I literally slept about 13 hours in a month. (And the only hours I did get were broken up and only light dreaming sleep.) I continued getting only a night or two of sleep (NOT near a full night) in a week (more or less) for over a year. After the first few days without sleep, I was saying mean things. I was a very sweet person and was occassionally saying completely rude things. You do impulsive things. Things you would normally never do. My daughter’s crying irritated me. (Which makes me so upset!! Its always broken my heart when she cries.) I lost all my empathy. (This is SO awful.) And I did sexual immoral things and felt no remorse. (And I was a very strong and grounded single Christian girl who always refused to have sex- until I had lost so much serious sleep.) It was SO wierd. Usually, if I ever had sex, I felt very convicted. And I had never done sexual things like that before nor would I ever! And I wasn’t bipolar. A combination of hormonal imbalances, thyroid problems, sleep apnea, etc can cause insane sleep deprivation!

    Now that I’m getting more sleep, I’m more aware and not doing these things. I still only get like 2-3 hours a night of only light sleep. So the lack of empathy remains. My question is will my empathy return when I get a normal 6-8 hours of good sleep a night?? And make up this enormous three year sleep debt.

    Absolutely decreased empathy and immorality.

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