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A psychological and relational effect of lack of sleep


Lack of sleep has considerable psychological repercussions. Studies have shown that it affects emotional and cognitive functioning in various ways.

Work, the results of which will be published in August 2022 in the journal PLOS Biologyshow another psychological consequence: lack of sleep makes people less inclined to help others and to be generous.

Eti Ben Simon and Matthew Walker from the Department of Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley (United States) have, together with their colleagues (1)conducted three studies that respectively show that a night of sleep deprivation, natural variations in sleep, and the hour of sleep lost during the time change affect generosity.

First study

In the first study, conducted with 24 volunteers, willingness to help others was assessed using an altruism questionnaire after a normal night’s sleep and after a night of sleep deprivation.

Participants’ brain activity in a brain network involved in empathy and prosocial behaviors was assessed using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while they were presented with cards depicting people they had to make a social judgment.

After a sleepless night, less activity was observed in areas of the brain that form the so-called theory of mind network. This network is activated when taking into account the mental states, needs and perspectives of others and when actively choosing to help them. (2)

Second study

In a second study, more than 100 people completed the altruism questionnaire after keeping diaries for three or four nights rating the quality and quantity of sleep. A decrease in sleep quality from night to night predicted a decrease in desire to help others from day to day.

Third study

In a third study, researchers analyzed a database of 3 million charitable donations in the United States to compare the number of donations in the week before and the week after losing an hour of sleep due to summer time. They saw a 10% drop in donations in the week following the time change. This drop in donations was not present in the regions of the country that had not changed the time.

Societal consequences

Together, these three studies suggest that altruistic acts can be hindered by even minor reductions in sleep in a society. “Mutual aid is an essential and fundamental characteristic of humanity. This new study demonstrates that lack of sleep damages the very fabric of human societyconcludes Walker.

For more information on sleep, see the links below.

(1) Raphael Vallat and Aubrey Rossi.

(2) Damage to key regions of this network can result in “learned sociopathy,” associated with a loss of empathy and compassionate help.

Psychomedia with sources: University of California – Berkeley, PLOS, PLOS Biology.
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