Lack of Sleep Can Make You Less Generous and Selfish


As everyone knows, lack of sleep can negatively affect one’s health and well-being. It can also make people sluggish, tired, irritated, and cranky. New research published in the journal PLOS Biology also stated that people could become selfish and less likely to help another person when they don’t get enough sleep.

The University of California, Berkeley researchers, conducted three sleep studies to examine the changes in brain activity and behavior benefiting other people. During the first study, 24 healthy adult participants participated in a counterbalanced, cross-over experimental design consisting of two conditions – one night of sleep and one night of sleep deprivation. In the two conditions, the participants were assessed through a standardized helping questionnaire and asked to perform a social cognition task during a functional MRI scan.

In the study, 136 participants were tasked to complete helping questionnaires and sleep diaries within 4 consecutive days under free-living conditions, and in the third study, the researchers analyzed more than 3.8 million charity donations made in the United States before and after the annual transition to daylight saving time, which causes everyone to lose an hour of sleep. From the three studies, the researcher was able to derive crucial findings on the link between sleep deprivation and reduced activity in the area of the brain linked to social cognition, which regulates our social interactions with others. We will highlight the significant findings in this article to give further insight into the said study.

What the Research Says

It has been well-established by previous research that sleep deprivation can lead to several health issues, including an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, depression, diabetes, hypertension, and overall mortality. 

However, the new research adds to the negative effects of lack of sleep by demonstrating that a lack of sleep also impacts our basic social conscience, which leads to a reduced willingness to help other people.

The study showed that donations decreased by 10 percent in the days after the clocks were changed for summer, which caused everyone to lose an hour more sleep than in the weeks before and after the transition.

Based on this finding, the researchers suggest that lack of sleep not only impacts the overall well-being of a person but also compromises the bonds between individuals and even the compassion of an entire nation.

Sleep Deprivation and The Theory of Mind Network

In the three separate studies conducted by the researcher of the new report where they examined the impact of sleep inadequacy on people’s enthusiasm to help others, they have found further evidence on the relationship between inadequate sleep and one’s generosity by examining the areas of the brain that comprises the theory of mind network, which regulates our social interactions with others.

Based on the assessment of the 24 healthy volunteers from the first study, the researchers found that the area of the brain responsible for empathy towards another’s needs is less active after a sleepless night.

In the second study, the researchers tracked more than 100 people online over three or four nights while measuring the quality and duration of their sleep, how many times they woke up, and their desire to help others after. Here they found that a decrease in the quality of someone’s sleep from one night results in a significant decrease in their willingness to help others the following day.

The third part of the study used a database of 3 million charitable donations in the United States between 2001 and 2016, where the researchers found a 10% decrease in donations after the transition to Daylight Saving Time, where people lose an hour of sleep. This finding demonstrates that even an hour of sleep deprivation measurably and significantly impacts people’s generosity.

One of the researchers further stated that an hour of lost sleep impacts our innate human kindness and motivation to help those in need and, therefore, how we function as a connected society.

Sleep as a Social Lubricant

Based on the study’s findings, the researchers concluded that the lack of sleep could result in anti-social behaviors, negatively impacting how we live together as social beings. Additionally, lack of sleep makes people less empathetic, less generous, and more socially withdrawn, which can be infectious. 

Knowing that the negativities brought by sleep inadequacy can also be transferred from one person to another as we interact a lot about the societal state of affairs in the present day. 

Since there is an existing idea that sleep is unnecessary or a waste of time and that one should be working more instead of sleeping to succeed, society tends to undervalue the importance of resting and sleeping. However, the researchers suggest promoting sleep, rather than shaming people for sleeping enough, should be encouraged as it could help shape the social bonds we all experience daily. 

When society does not value the importance of sleep, we get sleep-deprived office workers, doctors, nurses, students, or servers and suffer unkind and less empathic interactions daily. Hence it is time to stop neglecting the importance of sleep on our health and overall well-being. Sleep is the best form of kindness and care we can offer ourselves and the people around us.

Journal Reference

Ben Simon, E., Vallat, R., Rossi, A., & Walker, M. P. (2022). Sleep loss leads to the withdrawal of human helping across individuals, groups, and large-scale societies. PLOS Biology, 20(8). 

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