Less Sleep Makes People More Selfish, Study Suggests


A lack of sleep—both in terms of quantity and quality—may make humans less willing to help one another, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, found through three separate experiments, suggesting sleep deprivation not only increases risk for mental health problems and other illnesses but may also harm how humans function in society.

A man naps in his bedroom.


Key Facts

In one portion of the study, published in PLOS Biology, researchers found that in states that lost an hour of the day because of daylight saving, charitable donations fell 10% in the week following the time change, a decrease they did not find in states that did not change their clocks.

The experiment showed even a “very modest dose of sleep deprivation”—just one hour—can have a “clear hit on our innate human kindness and our motivation to help other people in need,” Matthew Walker, a co-author of the study and professor of neuroscience and psychology at UC Berkeley said in a statement.

In a different experiment, in which scientists compared the brain activity of a group of people after 8 hours of sleep to their brain activity after a night of no sleep, researchers found sleep deprivation significantly reduced activity in social areas of the brain that are engaged when humans empathize with one another or try to understand each other’s desires and needs.

In the other portion of the study, researchers measured the quality of sleep of more than 100 people over the course of three or four nights and compared those results to their responses to questionnaires on willingness to help others.

Researchers found poor sleep quality led to a “significant decrease in the desire to help other people” through this experiment, according to Eti Ben Simon, a study co-author and neuroscientist at the Center for Human Sleep Science at UC Berkeley.

Crucial Quote

“Helping is a core, fundamental feature of humankind. This new research demonstrates that a lack of sleep degrades the very fabric of human society itself. How we operate as a social species—and we are a social species—seems profoundly dependent on how much sleep we are getting,” Walker said.

Surprising Fact

Adults need 7 hours of sleep or more each night for their best health and wellbeing, but some 35% of Americans report sleeping less than that on average, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Key Background

Research over the years has linked a lack of sleep to a host of issues, including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity and depression. Studies in recent years have also shown sleep deprivation may be connected to social behaviors, including withdrawal and isolation. Helping one another is a fundamental aspect of the homo sapiens species and of modern civilizations, researchers noted. They hypothesized that insufficient sleep may affect human beings’ willingness to help one another because it hinders emotional processing, including by creating difficulty recognizing others’ emotions and expressions, while also causing heightened emotional reactivity. Stress, including increased levels of cortisol, the primary stress hormone, caused by a lack of sleep may also play a role in reducing social behaviors and causing humans to make more selfish choices, researchers suggested. Conversely, implementing policies that help individuals and communities get more high quality sleep could promote “greater helping” and generosity among societies, the UC Berkeley scientists concluded.

Further Reading

New Study Reveals Lack of Sleep Can Harm Kids’ Brain Development (NBC News TODAY)

Life Sciences, Forbes – Healthcare

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