Sleepy Politics: How Sleep Deprivation can Affect Political Decision Making

In today’s political landscape, important decisions are often made by those who are severely sleep deprived. This raises the question of potential consequences of sleep deprivation for political decision making. Psychological research on the effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive functioning, decision making, communication, and coordination in groups can help to answer this question. There are several effects of sleep deprivation indicating that it could have negative consequences. For example, sleep-deprived individuals are less flexible in changing plans and courses of action and are generally less able to deal with the unexpected. Moreover, sleep deprivation can have negative effects on motivation and learning in a group. However, there are possible ways in which sleep deprivation might not be a severe problem. For example, sleep-deprived people might compensate for deficits by using advice or by mutually monitoring group performance. Another point to consider is that problems associated with sleep deprivation may actually be less serious in the political world because of the so-called survival bias: Those who are relatively good at functioning well under sleep deprivation will be more likely to “survive” in the political arena; whereas, those who are less good at functioning when they are sleep deprived will be weeded out.


As evidenced in the overnight EU summits negotiating financial rescue packages for Greece in recent years, politicians have put themselves in the position of making important political decisions while in a state of acute sleep deprivation. Politicians even seem eager to create legends out of their own invulnerability to sleep deprivation: Bill Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Winston Churchill, Donald Trump – all of them allegedly needed only four to five hours of sleep per night (though Churchill was a fan of the extended after-lunch nap, so maybe he shouldn’t count). Angela Merkel is famous for having a “camel-like” capacity for sleep and Hillary Clinton allegedly copes with tiredness by eating hot Jalapeno peppers.  In light of the far-reaching consequences of the decisions at stake, sometimes for millions of people, as was the case for the EU summits, I was wondering if it really is a good idea to make such decisions while being acutely sleep deprived.

So the questions here are: Does sleep deprivation have an (negative) effect on decision making? And do we need a policy – similar to regulations for pilots or truck drivers – to regulate sleep in political decision makers? Answering these questions can be tricky. Each overnight political decision is an individual case, often concerned with an emergency situation or made under the pressure of an approaching deadline. Thus, we just cannot know what the decision would have been if it were made in the afternoon after sufficient rest. Unfortunately – from a researcher’s perspective – we do not have a non-sleep-deprived control condition struggling with exactly the same problem, which would allow us to isolate the effects of sleep deprivation. What we do have is a rich and ever-growing pool of psychological research on the more general effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive functioning and decision making. Admittedly, this type of evidence is indirect, as it does not examine the influence of sleep deprivation on concrete political decisions. But still, the findings from that line of research might be a key to understanding how sleep deprivation could play a role in political decisions. In what follows I will give a brief overview of the effects of acute sleep deprivation on cognitive functioning and decision making. Afterwards, I will discuss the special case of sleep deprivation when making decisions as a group, since it is typically groups that make political decisions. Finally, on the basis of these empirical findings, I will try to answer the question of how harmful sleep deprivation might be for political decision making.