Sleepy Politics: How Sleep Deprivation can Affect Political Decision Making

     First, sleep-deprived individuals tend to be more rigid in their course of actions. They have more problems with information updating, with reacting to the unexpected, as well as with adapting plans and strategies to changing environmental demands (Horne, 2012). This becomes a problem when the decision is made in a dynamic environment, and it grows worse when the decision is made in a group. Decades of group-decision-making research (see Kerr & Tindale, 2004 for a comprehensive overview) show that groups show the increased rigidity that can also be observed in sleep-deprived individuals. Groups often tend to engage in information processing that reinforces existing preferences for courses of action, and they are poor in rerouting once a course of action gains momentum. For example, a classic concept in social psychology, groupthink (Janis, 1982), describes the tendency to prefer harmony and conformity within the group over critical thinking and controversy. Sleep deprivation could add fuel to this fire by making a group even more easily subject to groupthink.

     Second, as discussed above, sleep deprivation can have negative motivational effects (Hoeksma-van Orden et al., 1998). This effect occurs when the individual contributions of the group members have only little impact and therefore increases with group size. Hence, when managing a sleep-deprived group, it is of particular importance to keep the spirits high (cf. Barnes, 2011; Faber et al., 2015).  

     Third, although impaired basic cognitive functions might have no strong direct impact on complex decisional cases, it has to be acknowledged that they might be more problematic when decisions are made in groups, as this could potentially prevent mutual stimulation and learning. This is of particular importance when it affects groups with a future and a past (not ad-hoc task forces).

Finally, here are the reasons to assume that sleep deprivation could have beneficial effects on political decision making: there are none.

Concluding remarks

Sleep deprivation has the potential to negatively alter political decisions. The best possible outcome is that nothing bad happens, for example because the politicians involved are hardened by countless nights of decision making, and because the group compensates for individual impairments. Generally, it is best to refrain from making important political decisions while sleep deprived. Although at first sight this sounds easier said than done, one has to keep in mind that the perceived need to arrive at a decision by tomorrow morning is often man-made. The last federal election in Germany in 2013 provides a good example: The final agreement was made early in the morning after a 17-hour negotiation marathon. There was no external deadline, no emergency, and no obvious reason to negotiate through the night. In cases like this, it appears that politicians want to send the message that they are willing to burn themselves out for the sake of voters, to show diligence in getting the best outcome on their behalf. But the research reviewed here suggests that this kind of signaling may have its downside: it’s less likely that decision making under sleep deprivation leads to optimum outcomes, and therefore “burning themselves out” may be a disservice to voters all things considered.    

In the introduction, I raised the question of whether we need to have actual policies on sleep in political settings: We know about decreased performance due to sleep deprivation in truck drivers and pilots, so we have laws forcing them to maintain an adequate sleeping pattern. Increasing empirical evidence shows the potential harm of sleep deprivation for complex decision making in social contexts, so it would definitely be worthwhile to consider regulating sleep in political settings. As I expect considerable resistance against such regulations, for the moment I would emphatically recommend refraining from sleep-deprived decision making whenever it is not absolutely necessary. Moreover, as an appeal to the voter, scrutinize why a political decision was made during the night. Was there an objective need for it, or was it more about the message to you?


Baranski, J. V., Thompson, M. M., Lichacz, F. M. J., McCann, C., Gil, V., Pastò, L., & Pigeau, R. A. (2007). Effects of sleep loss on team decision making: Motivational loss or motivational gain? Human Factors, 49, 646-660. doi:10.1518/001872007X215728

Barnes, C. M. (2011). I’ll sleep when I’m dead: Managing those too busy to sleep. Organizational Dynamics, 40, 18-26. doi:10.1016/j.orgdyn.2010.10.001

Couyoumdjian, A., Sdoia, S., Tempesta, D.D., Curcio, G., Rastellini, E., De Gennaro, L. & Ferrara, M. (2009). The effects of sleep and sleep deprivation on task-switching performance. Journal of Sleep Research, 19, 64–70.

Durmer, J. S., & Dinges, D. F. (2005). Neurocognitive consequences of sleep deprivation. Seminars in Neurology, 25, 117- 129. doi:10.1055/s-0029-1237117

Faber, N. S., Häusser, J. A. & Kerr, N. L. (2015). Sleep deprivation impairs and caffeine enhances my performance, but not always our performance: How acting in a group can change the effects of impairments and enhancements. Personality and Social Psychology Review. Epub ahead of print. doi: 10.1177/1088868315609487