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Lack of sleep leads to risky decision-making

A new study highlights the significant impact of sleep deprivation on decision-making, particularly in high-stress jobs like politics, military leadership, and first response. 

The research sheds light on the critical role sleep plays in maintaining cognitive performance and emotional well-being, especially under stress.

Importance of sleep 

The importance of sleep is well-documented in terms of human health, cognitive functioning, and emotional regulation. 

Previous studies have indicated that a lack of sleep can lead to reduced neurocognitive functions, including attention, motor responses, inhibition control, and working memory. 

Risky decision-making 

However, the new research provides further insights, particularly into how sleep deprivation affects risky decision-making at a neuroimaging level.

The researchers discovered that 24 hours of sleep deprivation significantly alters an individual’s decision-making process. The effect is evidenced by dampened neural responses to the outcomes of decisions. 

This means that individuals who have pulled an all-nighter show reduced positive emotions when they experience wins and lessened negative emotions when faced with losses, compared to their reactions when well-rested.

Sleep deprivation and decisions

Zhuo Fang, a data scientist in the Department of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, emphasized the emotional impact of sleep deprivation. 

“Common sense does dictate if people incur sleep loss, sleep disturbance or a sleep disorder that their cognitive function will be impacted, their attention and efficiency will decrease. But there is an emotional impact, too,” said Fang.

“If you experience even just one night of sleep deprivation, there will be an impact, even on a neural level. So, we wanted to combine brain imaging and behaviour to see that impact.”

Key insights on sleep and decision-making

The study involved 56 healthy adults and found that a single night without sleep significantly decreased brain activation in response to winning and losing situations. This indicates that acute sleep loss can dampen neural responses during risk-taking decisions. 

Furthermore, total sleep deprivation disrupts the link between neural response and an individual’s risk-taking behavior, likely due to altered risk perception.

While many studies have shown the broad effects of sleep deprivation on various brain and cognitive functions, including attention processing, memory consolidation, and learning, this study uniquely focuses on the specific impact of sleep loss on decision-making.

The findings highlight the necessity of adequate sleep, particularly for those in professions where critical decisions are made under conditions of sleep deprivation. 

Study implications 

“These results underscore the importance of maintaining adequate sleep and how individuals should refrain from making important decisions when experiencing chronic or acute sleep deprivation,” said Fang. 

“In specific professions where decision-makers are required to operate under accumulated sleep loss, specialized training or fatigue risk management might be necessary to enable them to handle such situations effectively.”

The study is published in the journal Psychophysiology.


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