Can a Lack of Sleep Make You Selfish?

Alarm clock on a bedside table.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), people aged 18 to 60 need seven or more hours of sleep every night for better health. (Image: Stevanovicigor via Dreamstime)

A recent study by academics at the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that a bad night’s sleep might impact how helpful and charitable you are.

Inadequate rest has been connected to a higher risk of heart disease, depression, diabetes, hypertension, and total mortality. However, current research indicates that lack of sleep weakens our fundamental social conscience, prompting us to withdraw our desire and inclination to serve others.

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The researchers discovered that people are less inclined to contribute to charity after missing an hour of rest owing to daylight saving time (DST). Furthermore, the study reveals that this behavior is caused by disturbances in the brain’s prosocial cognitive network when someone does not get enough rest.

According to researchers Ben Simon and Matthew Walker, our propensity to help others are essential to civilization. So they investigated how sleep deprivation affects this specific human behavior in their experiment.

At first, the researchers employed a self-reported altruism questionnaire to examine a group of individuals’ propensity to help others after a regular and bad night’s rest. Then, after each night, these individuals received MRI imaging to analyze their brain activity.

The researchers nest administered the altruism questionnaire to a sample of adults who had kept diaries measuring both sleep quality and quantity. 

Finally, the researchers collected data on philanthropic donations from around the United States in the weeks leading up to and after DST.

Hand demonstrating digital brain hologram in circuit style over abstract blue background.
According to brain scans, sleep loss dampens social cognition and brain network activity. (Image: Prostockstudio via Dreamstime)

Sleep deprivation hurts the theory of the mind network

According to brain scans, sleep loss dampens social cognition and brain network activity. During prosocial acts, this area is often more active. This disturbance in prosocial brain activity was linked to individuals reporting that they wanted to help others less throughout the first two sessions.

Regarding natural monetary gifts to charities, the researchers discovered that donations fell by 10 percent following DST.

According to the study’s authors, these results should help organizations better arrange their donation campaigns to avoid periods when individuals are less willing to help others affects social interactions as well) and more likely to be sleep deprived.

“Helping is a core, fundamental characteristic of humanity. This new study shows that a lack of sleep affects the core fabric of human civilization. “How we function as a social species — and we are a social species — appears to be significantly reliant on how much sleep we receive,” Walker noted in a press release.

The researchers monitored more than 100 participants online over three or four nights in the second round of research. 

During this period, they examined their motivation to assist others by measuring the quality of their rest. The researchers compared the amount of rest and how often someone would wake up to how courteous they were in everyday life.

This meant holding elevator doors open for someone else, volunteering, or helping an injured stranger in public.  

“We discovered that a decline in sleep quality from one night to the next predicted a considerable decrease in motivation to help others from one succeeding day to the next,” Simon explained. “Those who had a bad night’s sleep the night before reported being less inclined and eager to serve others the next day,” added Simon.

‘We discovered that a decline in sleep quality from one night to the next predicted a considerable decrease in motivation to help others from one succeeding day to the next,’ Simon explained. (Image: Antonio Guillem via Dreamstime)

The last round involved analyzing a database of 3 million philanthropic donations made in the United States between 2001 and 2016. Did the number of gifts change due to the change to DST and the potential loss of an hour of sleep?

Contributions dropped by 10 percent, they observed. However, this decrease in compassionate gift-giving was not observed in regions of the country where the clocks were not changed.

“Even a minimal ‘dosage’ of sleep deprivation, in this case, only the loss of one single hour of sleep opportunity due to daylight saving time, has a very measurable and very significant influence on people’s generosity and, hence, how we function as a connected society. Losing one hour of sleep impacts our basic human goodness and willingness to help others in need,” Walker said.


It seems a lack of sleep can lead a human to become selfish. 

Looking at the larger picture, this can lead to a somewhat asocial and, from a practical standpoint, anti-social individual, which has several implications for how we live together as a social species.

Sleep deprivation makes individuals less empathic, less charitable, and more socially isolated.

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