Sleepy Politics: How Sleep Deprivation can Affect Political Decision Making

Political decisions under sleep deprivation

So, sleep deprivation in political decision making – is it bad, does it not matter, or could it even be beneficial? As argued above, in the absence of adequate “control-group designs” – honestly, we cannot know for sure. However, on the basis of the empirical findings from psychological sleep deprivation research, we can draw some hypotheses about what might happen in such cases. By now, after learning about the individual cognitive effects as well as the social effects of sleep deprivation, the reader might be tempted to assume that making an important political decision while sleep deprived is definitely a bad idea, maybe even irresponsible. However, there are several indications that it might not be too problematic at all:  

First, as described above, the major impairments of moderate sleep deprivation refer to basic cognitive functioning. However, in complex decision making situations, like negotiating financial rescue packages for a EU member state, such basic cognitive functions play only an inferior role. To illustrate, if a truck driver´s reaction times are increased due to sleep deprivation (and we are talking about a matter of milliseconds, Williamson & Feyer, 2000), this could have deadly consequences. In contrast, if reaction time is impaired in complex decision making, this should not have such severe consequences, since in these situations information is typically presented repeatedly, and is available in written form. 

Second, the group setting in which many political decisions are made could help to dampen the negative effects of sleep deprivation. In a study on the effects of alcohol on cognitive functioning, Frings et al. (2008) found – not surprisingly – that alcohol had a negative effect on individual cognitive performance: participants in the alcohol condition made more errors, compared to participants in the placebo condition. Interestingly, there was no difference between the alcohol and placebo condition when the task was performed in a group. The authors describe this effect as group monitoring, which means that the group members are aware of each other’s reduced cognitive capacity and try to compensate for it. In other words, the group members monitor their mutual performance and try to overcome any obstacles that stem from individual reduced cognitive capacity. It is plausible to assume that group monitoring also occurs in the case of sleep deprivation, and there is preliminary data for that assumption. Baranski et al (2007) found that sleep-deprived groups could outperform sleep-deprived individuals, given two conditions: The group members have to be aware of each other’s impairments and the individual contribution to group performance must be visible and have an impact.              

Third, a recent study (Häusser, Leder, Ketturat, Dresler, & Faber, 2016; found that sleep-deprived individuals used more advice than well-rested individuals. In this study participants worked on a judgmental task (they had to estimate airline distances between European capital cities). In some trials they received advice from a highly competent advisor (who made very accurate estimates); in other trials, they received advice from a moderately competent advisor (who made less accurate estimates). In cases where the advice was of a high quality, the sleep-deprived individuals were able to redeem their poorer performance in a judgmental task, increasing their own accuracy. Hence, as long as good advice is available, sleep-deprived individuals may be able to compensate for cognitive impairments by relying on the advisor. However, this study also found a somewhat paradoxical effect: Sleep deprivation particularly increased advice taking when the advice was of only mediocre quality, and using this type of advice did not result in a better performance. Thus, sleep-deprived politicians – even more than well-rested ones – are dependent on the advice they receive being of high quality and coming from reliable sources.

Finally, and although I have no empirical data for this assumption, the likelihood of a strong survival bias in the political world is very high. Survival bias means, in this case, that only individuals who are less impaired by sleep deprivation will survive in the political world and will ultimately arrive at positions where they are forced to make important decisions in the night. If you cannot go without an 8-hour eleven-to-seven sleep you might have trouble getting into such a position. Hence, this selection process should result in a situation where primarily individuals who are less likely to suffer negative consequences from sleep deprivation are those who are faced with it. The political legends mentioned above and the fact that experience helps when coping with sleep deprivation (Horne, 2012) support this assumption.  

To rein in enthusiasm, there are also good reasons to refrain from making political decisions while sleep deprived: