Ever noticed that when you haven’t been getting enough sleep, you have more difficulty thinking? We already knew this was true for many types of cognitive function, from mental math to logical reasoning. Also mood regulation and even humor are impaired when we don’t get enough sleep.

New research looked at moral reasoning in a military setting, where sometimes very difficult choices must be made. (Think ‘whether to attack insurgents in a setting succounded by civilians,’ the example given by these authors). This study had cadets respond to 5 moral dilemmas by rating 12 different decision making items. The cadets did this twice, when getting normal sleep, and with only 2.5 hours for the last 5 nights.

The people who made their judgements based more on principles when rested, shifted into more rule-based and self-oriented reasoning when sleep deprived.

This study has important implications for those situations when sleep deprived people are having to perform in a situation that involves moral dilemmas. For instance, military, police, other emergency workers. Can it also have relevance for more common situations, when we are faced with doing the right thing (or not)? Maybe so, something to think about.

Olsen. SLEEP 2010;33(8):1086-1090.