How a Tired Brain Drives Poor Decision-Making

Fatigue can have serious consequences, especially when it comes to decision-making. Research shows that even a modest amount of sleep deprivation can significantly impact decision-making skills. This lapse in judgment affects everything from attention and memory to our ability to focus and regulate our emotions, which could lead to increased risk-taking behavior.

Key takeaways:

We make an incredible number of decisions every day — without even realizing it. For example, think about how many times people must make a decision at work. Often, they're simple choices like, “Do I want a bagel or an English muffin?” However, many decisions are more impactful with longer-lasting ramifications. The burden accompanying responsibility can wear on a person. As a result, not getting enough rest can cause brain fatigue.

The science of sleep deprivation

Sleep plays a critical role in our overall health and well-being and is crucial in numerous physiological and cognitive functions. During sleep, the body, and brain are able to repair and restore themselves, allowing individuals to wake up feeling refreshed and energized.

When we don’t get enough sleep, it can have tremendous consequences for our mental and physical health. Even short periods of sleep deprivation can lead to impaired cognitive function, while much longer periods can lead to negative health outcomes like a weakened immune system and an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

How fatigue impacts the brain

Fatigue can affect different cognitive functions in the brain, leading to poor decision-making. Here are some factors that can exacerbate the impact of tiredness on decision-making:

  • Reduced cognitive function. When fatigued, our brains may have difficulty processing information and making connections between different pieces of information. This can lead to impaired cognitive function, including slower reaction times, reduced attention and focus, and impaired memory.
  • Lack of focus and attention. When tired, we may have difficulty concentrating and paying attention to details. This can cause us to miss important information and make hasty decisions.
  • Impaired memory. Sleep deprivation can impact our ability to form new memories and recall important information. This can lead to forgetfulness and confusion, impairing our decision-making abilities.
  • Impulsivity. Fatigue can also lead us to make more impulsive decisions. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived individuals may be more impulsive and make riskier decisions, with a greater focus on short-term benefits rather than long-term consequences.
  • Emotional instability. Tiredness can also lead to emotional instability, including mood swings, irritability, and increased stress and anxiety. This can cause impaired judgment and irrational decision-making.
  • Impaired flexibility and creative thinking. Sleep impairments are also related to a lack of innovation, creativity, and flexible thinking. Even as little as one night’s loss of sleep can impair a person’s ability to think creatively and update their thinking based on new information.

Sleep and decision-making

How does sleep impact decision-making skills in the real world? A number of studies have examined the impacts of sleep deprivation on specific key decisions, finding several negative consequences.

Drowsy driving

A sleep-deprived driver may experience impaired judgment and slower reaction times, putting themselves and others on the road in danger. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drowsy driving is responsible for a number of car crashes and led to over 600 fatalities in 2020.

Poor financial decisions

Sleep-deprived people are more likely to make impulsive purchases or overspend. For example, in one study, participants who were sleep-deprived had more skewed perspectives on probability, which led to increased financial risk-taking.

Medical errors

Despite the high-stakes scenarios that many doctors find themselves in, the medical field is a workplace where many workers struggle through their shifts while sleep-deprived. In particular, medical residents who work long schedules may be more prone to errors when sleep-deprived. Again, this highlights the importance of well-rested healthcare providers for patient safety.

Protecting decision-making skills

We all make important decisions throughout the day, whether while driving to work, caring for our loved ones, or conducting business. Knowing that sleep can impact decision-making, what can you do to ensure that your own decision-making skills are not at risk?

Prioritize sleep

The most effective way to prevent sleep deprivation is to prioritize getting quality sleep. Establishing a consistent sleep schedule, setting aside time for relaxation before bedtime, and creating a comfortable sleep environment can help promote restful sleep. Also, be sure to practice good sleep hygiene by engaging in practices like avoiding screens before bed, ensuring your bedroom is dark and quiet, and avoiding looking at your phone or another device if you can’t sleep during the night.

Limit caffeine and alcohol

Caffeine and alcohol can both interfere with sleep quality. Pay attention to how these substances impact you. If you find that you’re sensitive to caffeine, eliminate or restrict your consumption to the morning hours. Alcohol is often thought of as a sleep aid, and though it can make you feel drowsy, it can lead to less restful, poor-quality sleep.

Defer decision-making

If your sleep has been disrupted, find ways to avoid or defer making big decisions. Where there is flexibility, whether at work or at home, defer your decision-making to another day when you’re feeling more rested.

Delegate tasks

If it’s not possible to defer decision-making, try delegating these tasks to others. For instance, you might ask your partner to pick which weekend to visit family or ask a colleague to decide which vendor to choose for an important business need.

Seek support

If you’re experiencing ongoing sleep deprivation, seek support from a healthcare provider or a sleep specialist. Numerous conditions can impact your sleep and health, including sleep apnea and restless leg syndrome. A medical professional can help identify the underlying causes of your lack of sleep and develop effective strategies for improving sleep.

The importance of sleep cannot be overstated when it comes to decision-making skills. Even a modest amount of sleep deprivation can significantly impact cognitive function, leading to increased risk-taking behavior and impaired judgment. With so many important decisions to make throughout the day, it is essential to prioritize getting quality sleep and establishing healthy sleep habits.

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Michael Twery
prefix 1 year ago
Kudos to Ms. Heatherington laying 'bare' some of the non-medical and relatively invisible costs of sleep deficiency. These "symptoms" of sleep deficiency undermine the fabric of society, well-being, careers, and interpersonal relationships that are valued by individuals. Since these non-medical burdens of sleep deficiency are not systematically studied or quantified at a population level, many are left uncertain about how to see themselves compared to others. Individual tolerance for "uncertainty" is often relatively limited. "Uncertainty" can be 'paralyzing' when it comes to self-care.