Sleep-Deprived People Are More Likely To Cheat

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How to promote ethical behavior on the job? “A common opinion is that the way to avoid ethical lapses is to figure out how to hire good people,” writes Christopher M. Barnes on the website of the Harvard Business Review. “Good people do good things and bad people do bad things: it’s as simple as that.”

But actually, it’s not so simple. Barnes, an assistant professor of management at the University of Washington’s Foster School of Business, notes that “the workplace has many temptations that employees must resist, from the petty impulse to claim credit for someone else’s work, to the unscrupulous lapse of lying in a negotiation context, to the criminal act of misreporting financial numbers. Recent research indicates that self-control is a key determinant of whether or not people fall to or resist such temptations. When their ability to exert self-control is high, they can resist. When it is low, they cave.”

Barnes goes on to explain why “self-control varies over time within the same person”:

“Physiologically, self-control occurs largely in the prefrontal cortex region of the human brain, and uses glucose as a fuel. The act of using self-control draws upon this fuel, which exhausts the fuel. Thus, one’s ability to exert self-control can become depleted. And when self-control is depleted, people are more likely to cave to temptations to behave unethically.

Recent research indicates that sleep deprivation drains glucose in the prefrontal cortex. In other words, a lack of sleep robs the fuel for self-control from the region of the brain responsible for self-control, whereas sleep restores it. Building from this research, my colleagues and I investigated the effects of sleep on unethical behavior. Across a set of four studies in both laboratory and field contexts, we found that a lack of sleep led to high levels of unethical behavior. Moreover, we found that this was because a lack of sleep depleted self-control, which in turn led to unethical behavior.

It is important to underscore about this research that it was small amounts of lost sleep that produced noticeable effects on unethical behavior. For example, in one of the laboratory studies my colleagues and I conducted, there was a difference of only about 22 minutes of sleep between those who cheated and those who did not. In the field studies, naturally occurring variation in sleep (with most nights ranging from 6.5-8.5 hours of sleep) was sufficient to predict unethical behavior at work the next day.

Other researchers have found that a lack of sleep leads to deviant behavior at work, similarly because of decrements in self-control. They found that similarly small amounts of sleep matter; those who slept six hours or less were more likely to engage in deviant work behaviors than those who slept more than six hours. Many of the deviant work behaviors they examined, such as falsifying receipts, would also be considered unethical behavior. Thus, their research findings support the idea that sleep is crucial for ethics in the workplace.

Unfortunately, employees have many demands on their time that compete with sleep, with sleep too often the activity that loses out. Indeed, almost the 30% of Americans get less than six hours of sleep per night, and sleep levels have been trending downward for decades.

This growing health crisis may very well have the side effect of creating an ethics crisis as well. And often, it is the people who are in the most important or most influential jobs in a given firm who are most sleep deprived. Consider that, in contrast to the 30% of Americans in general who get less than six hours of sleep, over 40% of managers sleep less than six hours per night. Thus, people entrusted with the most consequential decisions, and given most leeway to exercise judgment, are in demanding roles that cut into their sleep, which depletes their self-control and leaves them vulnerable to caving to temptations to behave unethically.

How can we address the problem of sleep deficits and the unethical behavior they promote? Organizations need to give sleep more respect. Executives and managers should keep in mind that the more they push employees to work late, come to the office early, and answer emails and calls at all hours, the more they invite unethical behavior to creep in. Because leaders help to set norms by modeling behaviors, my recommendation is to prioritize sleep in your own life, while encouraging your team to do the same.” (Read more here.)

Such an important reminder, of two key points: First, that our brains are not disembodied symbol-processing machines but are very much affected by the physical state of our bodies. And second, that while we often prefer to find internal, character-driven explanations for people’s behavior, often the situations people find themselves in are more important in driving our actions and choices. That’s a strong argument for doing what we can to shape the environments in which people learn and work in positive ways.

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4 Responses to “Sleep-Deprived People Are More Likely To Cheat”

  1. Mark says:

    “Sleep-Deprived People Are More Likely To Cheat”

    I don’t believe in that. From the organization where I came from, deviant behaviors aren’t cause by lack of sleep (and I can claim that most of us lack sleep). Deviant behaviors come from those who lack patience, knowledge, and being insensitive. Because if the article’s claim or conclusion is true, then the members of our organization would be mostly cheaters of some sort. But the majority are not.

    Our lack of sleep never leads to losing self-control, and I’m speaking based on experience.

  2. Rosemary McDermott says:

    Now I have a better understanding for why I crave sugar after a sleep-deprived night. Interesting.

  3. Barbara Kelley says:

    Are sleep deprived people with sleep apnea more likely to be impulsive and diagnosed as ADD because of issues with food, sex, spending, etc.?

  4. Anne Hetherington says:

    This research suggests that humans do not have fundamental ethical or belief systems. I do not believe that a lack of sleep can overturn deeply embedded beliefs.

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