Sleepy Politics: How Sleep Deprivation can Affect Political Decision Making

Effects of sleep deprivation on cognitive functioning and decision making

The best-known and most robust effects of sleep deprivation refer to rather basic cognitive functions, such as attention, working memory, and reaction times (see Lim & Dinges, 2010 for a Meta-analysis). The negative effects of what sleep researchers call moderate sleep deprivation (up to 24h awake) are similar to or worse than the effects of a moderate alcohol intoxication (0.5‰) (Williamson & Feyer, 2000). Sleep-deprived individuals are more prone to distractions because, on the one hand, distractions are very welcome as they provide the stimulation needed in the battle to stay awake. On the other hand sleep deprivation impairs executive mechanisms of the brain that are needed to inhibit reacting to distractions (Horne, 2012). Sleep deprivation also affects more complex cognitive processes involved in decision making, such as so-called information updating (Harrison & Horne, 2000). Information updating refers to the ability to integrate new information that might alter the attractiveness of the different decisional alternatives. Imagine a politician who has to decide between different key topics for his campaign when running for a political office. He formed his preference for one topic – let’s say gun control. Now he receives new information: A strong competitor plans to come up with a very similar campaign. This new information has the potential to alter the attractiveness of the decisional alternatives (in this case, making gun control as a key topic less attractive). Therefore, the ability to integrate this new information into the original decision, and to adapt this decision accordingly, is crucial.  Similar to impaired information updating, sleep-deprived individuals are more sluggish in reacting to changing environmental demands (Couyoumdjian et al. 2009) and their ability to foresee and weigh different potential outcomes is hampered (Killgore, 2010). In a nutshell, sleep-deprived individuals are generally impaired in dealing with the unexpected, that is, when they receive new surprising information, or when changes in routines that guided behavior previously are required (Horne, 2012).

Group decision making and sleep deprivation

One important feature of political decisions has to be acknowledged: At least in modern democratic societies, decisions are typically made in groups, be it a cabinet, a task force, or a president with his or her staff. This particular feature of political decisions becomes relevant for the case of sleep deprivation, since sleep deprivation has effects not only at the individual cognitive level, but at the social level, too. These social effects of sleep deprivation can alter decisions above and beyond the mere sum of the individual cognitive deficits of the group members. Making a decision in a group requires effective communication, interaction, and coordination of the individual contributions of the group members. Effective communication is seriously disturbed only after more severe sleep deprivation (36h and up, cf. Harrison & Horne, 2000) – levels that are very uncommon in political decision making. However, even moderate sleep deprivation can affect how people work together and how they combine their individual knowledge and efforts to arrive at a good decision (see Faber, Häusser & Kerr, 2015 for an overview). For example, sleep deprivation has the potential to increase social loafing in the group (Hoeksma-van Orden, Gaillard, & Buunk, 1998). Social loafing refers to the reduction of motivation and effort of the group members when they feel that their own contributions are not acknowledged, or have no impact on the performance of the group. Moreover, the negative effect of sleep deprivation on working memory capacity (Ilkowska & Engle, 2010) could increase production blocking: sleep-deprived people are more likely to forget what they wanted to say while they are waiting for the previous speaker to finish (Faber et al., 2015). Finally, due to the reduced cognitive capacities described above, sleep deprivation could hinder learning processes within the group. One advantage that groups have over individual decision makers is the potential for mutual stimulation and learning, so-called group-to-individual transfers. Group-to-individual transfer means the improvement of individual skills and capability as a result of working together in a group. For example, if a group has to solve a complex problem, an individual group member can learn from another group member regarding how to approach this problem most effectively. This potential could remain untapped as a consequence of sleep deprivation.