Sleep loss hurts decision-making ability

Sleep loss hurts decision-making ability

After a sleepless night, daily tasks can feel a lot more challenging than they normally are, and new research confirms just that — and then some.

Study leaders from Washington State University ran a test on 26 adults to see how lack of sleep impacts critical decision-making. Half of the participants were required to stay awake for 62 hours, while the other half were allowed to get as much sleep as they needed.

Researchers then showed all the participants a series of numbers with randomly assigned response and non-response values. Participants received mock monetary awards for correctly identifying a response number and lost “money” when they were incorrect.

In time, both the sleep-deprived and rested participants figured it out and began identifying the correct numbers. To test their ability to respond to real-time changes, researchers then reversed the response and non-response numbers.

While the non-sleep-deprived participants were able to figure out the switch within eight to 16 numbers, those who hadn’t slept did not catch on.

“People in high-stakes environments are held accountable for their actions when they are fatigued just like everyone else,” said Hans Van Dongen, director of the WSU Sleep and Performance Research Center at WSU Spokane, in a news release. “However, we now know that when someone is sleep-deprived their brain simply can’t process feedback from their actions and changing circumstances.”

According to researchers, the results of the study show that sleep deprivation impacts the brain’s ability to use feedback to aid in decision making. This supports the theory that sleep-deprived individuals have difficulty making decisions in stressful situations in which information may be changing or coming in real time.

Regardless of what types of decisions people are faced with each day, a good night’s sleep can make significant difference in productivity and focus — not to mention long-term health, says Dr. Raina Gupta, neurologist and sleep medicine specialist at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.

She recommends these tips for getting enough sleep:

Set a schedule and try to stick to it

Try to keep a similar sleep schedule on weekdays and weekends. That will help you regulate your body’s internal clock.

Relax and wind down before bed

Try to do a relaxing activity like reading before going to sleep. But, stay away from bright lights like computer and cell phone screens, which can stimulate your brain and make it difficult to fall asleep.

Avoid alcohol, caffeine and large meals within a few hours of bedtime

All three can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep.


In addition to various other health benefits, regular exercise can often help people get a better night’s sleep.

Become aware of the difference between feeling sleepy and feeling tired

“Try to go to bed when you feel sleepy or drowsy instead of just tired,” says Dr. Gupta. “Use this as a signal for your body to tell you when it’s time to go to bed, which may not be at the exact same time every night.”

If a person has tried these strategies and is still having a hard time falling asleep or sleeping through the night, talk to a physician.


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  1. This sleep reasearch is no surprize. Our residents working 60-70 hour weeks are more prone to medical errors without enough sleep. We all are. Research also shows we need at least seven hours of sleep each 24 hour period. People who brag about functioning on less are fooling themselves and endangering our patients. I would not want a physician to take care of me who is sleep deprived. We limit airline pilots, train operators and truck drivers on how many hours they can work. Its about time to limit health care professionals. We might see a significant reduction in medical mistakes!

  2. Only 26 participants in this study?
    62 hours of sleep deprivation isn’t exactly common in the real world, but is a safe comparison to prove their hypothesis in every case.
    I’m not sure I could know my own name after going 62 hours without sleep!
    I think you could just print Dr. Gupta’s recommendations to make your point without referencing a study that doesn’t prove much scientifically.

  3. Wow. This is so not science. I agree that not getting adequate sleep costs tremendous amounts of money and time and even lives in our society. But to study such a small sample for such a brief period of time only proves that staying awake for 3 days straight is a really bad idea. Duh.

    How about we study real world conditions, like adults getting less than recommended amounts of sleep for long periods of time? That’s what is really happening in my world. How about yours?

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health enews Staff
health enews Staff

health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Health Care and Aurora Health Care sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.