Sleep Deprivation Blurs Moral Judgment
Best to Sleep Before Tackling a Personal Dilemma, Study Suggests
WebMD News Archive
March 2, 2007 -- Facing a personal dilemma? Don't stay up all night mulling
it over; sleep deprivation may cloud your moral judgment.
That's according to a U.S. Army study on sleep deprivation and moral
The study comes from Maj. William Killgore, PhD, and colleagues at the
Walter Reed Army Institute of Research in Maryland.
They studied 26 healthy, active-duty military personnel asked to deal with
fictional dilemmas before and after staying awake for 53 consecutive hours.
When sleep deprived, participants were slower to judge emotional, personal
dilemmas; some also wavered in their judgments when sleep deprived.
"Most of us are confronted with moral dilemmas nearly every day,
although the majority of these choices are minor and of little
consequence," Killgore says in an American Academy of Sleep Medicine news
"Our results simply suggest that when sleep deprived, individuals appear
to be ... slower in their deliberations about moral personal dilemmas,"
The study appears in the journal Sleep.
Study participants included 21 men and five women. They were 20-35 years old
(average age: 25).
First, participants took an emotional intelligence test. Emotionally
intelligent people are aware of their emotions and the emotions of others, and
they're good at using that information to shape their decisions and behavior,
Killgore's team notes.
Next, participants read 30 dilemmas. Each dilemma ended with a solution that
participants had to judge as appropriate or inappropriate.
The dilemmas were either nonmoral, moral but impersonal, or moral and
The nonmoral dilemmas presented a solution that wouldn't seriously hurt
The moral impersonal dilemmas presented a solution that would redirect
inevitable harm from one group to another, without requiring the participant to
directly inflict harm.
The moral personal dilemmas presented a solution that forced the participant
to directly inflict serious bodily harm or death on someone in order to help
save someone else.
The dilemmas were fictional; participants didn't actually face the
situations in real life.
When the researchers timed participants as they judged the dilemmas, they
found judgment times were similar for each type of dilemma.
Sleepless for 53 Hours
In addition, participants with high scores on the emotional intelligence
test weren't any slower in judging the moral personal dilemmas when sleep
They also judged these dilemmas the same way before and after sleep
However, participants with average or low emotional intelligence tended to
waver in their judgments on the moral personal dilemmas. Specifically, they
became more lenient, judging solutions they had considered
"inappropriate" before sleep deprivation as "appropriate" when
Sleep deprivation may affect certain brain areas, and people with high
levels of emotional intelligence may be less affected by that, the researchers
Killgore's team stresses that the findings don't prove sleep deprivation
leads to poor moral judgment.
"Whether these judgments were morally 'right' or 'wrong' in any absolute
sense was not addressed," the researchers write.
Caffeine didn't affect the results, the researchers write.
It's not clear whether the findings apply to civilians, Killgore and his