March 14, 2007

Sleep Loss And Moral Judgment

dunkin donuts 

There's an article making the rounds that I'd like to kill off right now, before it becomes a meme, or worse, another unsupported postulate common among psychiatrists.

The title of the Reuters news story about the article (in Sleep) is this: "Sleepless nights may hinder moral judgments."  And has sentences like this: "[subjects] took a longer time to mull over the morally charged questions when they were sleep-deprived than when they were well rested. This was not the case with the more minor, non-moral scenarios."

And there's your self-serving, exculpatory imbecility of the day: a sleepless night or two turns us into lycanthropes, or at least hyenas. ("I was so tired I couldn't think straight.")   Fortunately for the existentialists, the Reuters reporter didn't actually read the Sleep article, which doesn't actually say this.

The Army study subjected volunteers to 53 hours of sleep deprivation and presented them with a battery of moral dilemma type questions ("is it morally appropriate or inappropriate to do X if Y is at stake?")

In contrast to the obvious suggestions of the Reuter's title, the study found that it took sleep deprived subjects longer to identify something as morally appropriate, but had no effect on how long it took to label it inappropriate.  In fact, relative to a non-moral issue, sleep deprived subjects were able to label something as morally inappropriate faster.

Quoting the authors:

When tested at rested baseline, participants showed no significant differences between response times for scenarios judged as “appropriate” versus those judged as “inappropriate” .... In contrast, when deprived of sleep for over 53 hours, these same participants showed significantly greater difficulty judging emotionally charged MP  (personal moral) courses of action as “appropriate” relative to judging them as “inappropriate.”

In other words, sleep deprivation made it harder for them to say something was right, but not harder to say it was wrong.  To use a metaphor, you "know" things are wrong; but you may have to judge if they are right.

The study also looked into whether people labeled something as morally appropriate more often if they were sleep deprived, i.e. were they more permissive.  First, if the subject had high emotional intelligence, sleep loss had no effect.  Secondly, having an "average" emotional intelligence lead to an increase in the number of scenarios labeled appropriate:  2/10 when rested vs. 4/10 when sleep deprived.  In other words, people with high emotional intelligence have stable, "unwavering" moral judgments, even in the face of sleep loss.  Or, put another way: if you're clear on what you believe, sleep deprivation isn't likely to confuse you.

This is important because the Reuter's title, and indeed the psychiatric utilization of this idea, puts the ability (or inability) to make moral judgments on external factors-- "he was sleep deprived, and that impacts your judgment."   This is prima facie false; but anyway is not supported even by the very science they themselves use to back the claims. 

We can set aside the debate on whether chemicals and psychosis can alter moral judgments; but I think it's fairly safe to say that if your moral judgments are affected by 53 hours of sleep deprivation, sleep isn't the problem.


Note: the study also found that caffeine did not reverse the alterations in moral judgments due to sleep loss.  I don't buy it; more later. 


53 hours huh? I was awake 3... (Below threshold)

March 15, 2007 3:38 PM | Posted by somebody: | Reply

53 hours huh? I was awake 3 times as much once. No drugs involved, just manic.

My moral judgment was no different than other times.

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I've had long term "manic" ... (Below threshold)

March 16, 2007 9:12 AM | Posted by Gianna: | Reply

I've had long term "manic" episodes in which I slept little or not at all for up to two weeks. I remained lucid and my judgment was not impaired. Perhaps I'm not a
typical manic, but considering I was unimpaired I would assume the "normies" would not be impaired as well. Good work.

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This contagion is spreading... (Below threshold)

March 16, 2007 2:51 PM | Posted by Admin: | Reply

This contagion is spreading.

Type "sleep and moral judgment" into Google and look at how many news stories there are about this study.

And look at how many got it wrong.

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Passing on the obvious anti... (Below threshold)

March 16, 2007 3:35 PM | Posted by Anonymous: | Reply

Passing on the obvious anti-military comments for the moment, I wonder if they asked the only important moral question for a sleep deprived person, i.e. what would you be willing to do to get some sleep?

As a resident frequently subjected to sleeplesness, I have often asked myself to make the absurdly necessary calculations of how much care I need to provide to prevent a patient's death while getting some sleep. It has become easier with experience, and I never killed anyone as an intern, but there were times I came close to not caring.

The problem is not that sleep deprivation impairs your ability to know what is right, but rather that it impairs your ability to do what is right. It's what you do, not what you say you would do, that defines your morality.

PS: If the previous posters want me to beleive they've never made dubious decisions while manic, I'll invite them to beleive that I've never acted less than ethically while drunk.

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I never said I did not make... (Below threshold)

March 16, 2007 3:49 PM | Posted by somebody: | Reply

I never said I did not make any dubious decisions during that particular time-frame. I just know better than to blame them on sleeplessness and/or even mania. ;)

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I'd go so far as to say tha... (Below threshold)

March 16, 2007 4:20 PM | Posted by Gianna: | Reply

I'd go so far as to say that I did not make dubious decisions. I made the appropriate judgment and decision to remove myself from situations where I would run the risk of making "dubious" decisions.

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To the Anonymous resident w... (Below threshold)

March 17, 2007 5:18 PM | Posted by Admin: | Reply

To the Anonymous resident who commented above, I have to commend you for your honesty, but also for hitting the nail on the head. I think what you describe happens all the time. Does it lead to mistakes? Sure. Death? Let's not ask this right now.

Leaving aside politics, I wonder how this affects Presidents? I'm think about Kennedy, who was on plenty o' amphetamines, just to get him through the day (and night)...

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the 4th commenter is dead-o... (Below threshold)

September 20, 2007 8:48 AM | Posted by sleepy: | Reply

the 4th commenter is dead-on. it took a long time, but i finally realized that the worst part of sleep deprivation isn't that you no longer want to do what you should/would if you were "sober," but that you no longer even want to want to do those things. the impairment is not just at the level of judgement, then, but also at the level of volition.

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I too remember medical resi... (Below threshold)

September 28, 2007 11:39 PM | Posted by tom: | Reply

I too remember medical residency and the toll on the soul. As that great Vince Lomardi, surely a student of Maslow, noted: Fatigue makes cowards of us all.

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