Can Lack Of Sleep Affect Your Moral Judgement?

The benefits of sleep are numerous. It plays a key role in a healthy lifestyle including keeping your weight and heart in good condition. Not getting sufficient sleep over a long period not only gives you unsightly undereye circles but also affects your physical and emotional health. One such factor is your moral judgment, unlikely as it sounds. Even if you are a person normally focused on your morals and ethics, when your body doesn’t get the sleep that it requires, your moral compass gets messed up.

A moral judgment is an evaluation you form, based on your own measure of “good,” about a certain action, motive, person, a particular character trait, and more. People hold on to their moral judgment with varying intensity; some people feel very strongly about acting according to what is “right,” while others don’t. But when your body is tired and your brain is sleep deprived, your judgment falters, not just your morality. In fact, even the time it takes for your brain to react to certain incidents varies when deprived of sleep.


Lack Of Sleep And Your Brain

Lack of sleep affects the communication between neurons in the brain.

Lack of sleep affects the communication between nerve cells (neurons) in the brain. Different parts of the brain have different functions. For example, the amygdala is a part of the brain that controls emotional response. The medial prefrontal cortex regulates the function of the amygdala. When you are sleep deprived, the connection between the different parts of the brain is not what it should be. Therefore, you end up having an emotional response that is inappropriate to the stimuli (either too much or too little).1 You may even become easily irritable which could affect your relationships.


Sleeping is an active process. It’s when the brain removes toxins that are built up during the day. Not getting enough sleep affects your memory and your ability to learn. It also affects your responses to events. That is why you are adviced not to drive when you are sleepy as you cannot be alert and your reaction time can be really slow.

Sleep deprivation affects the overall cognitive performance, as well. The chances of making mistakes and overlooking important information are higher when you are craving sleep. You become less capable of using creative thinking to solve problems. Being deprived of sleep also affects your logical reasoning and decision-making abilities.2


Sleep Deprivation And Your Moral Compass

moral judgment is a function of the brain

Your brain is in charge of making moral judgments. When your brain is exhausted due to less sleep, it becomes harder to integrate emotion and cognition. In turn, its ability to make moral judgments becomes impaired, making you less likely to behave in an ethical manner. Here’s how:

  1. In order to make a moral judgment, you must first be able to recognize that a particular situation contains moral content and that a moral judgment needs to be made. When you haven’t slept enough, your brain finds it difficult to even notice unethical behavior.
  2. The time taken for someone to take a moral decision if they are sleep deprived has been found to be longer than it takes for someone who has slept well.3 In other words, even if you find that something is not morally correct, it takes a lot longer to decide upon a course of action if you are sleep deprived.
  3. You are more likely to cheat when you haven’t slept well.
  4. You will be less sensitive to ethical issues that are necessary for decision-making.
  5. Making an ethically right choice often has to do with exercising self-control. Self-control can come in many forms: being patient, listening to opposing viewpoints, avoiding temptation, delaying gratification, and controlling anger. Your capacity for such self-control is lowered when you are sleep deprived.4

How Much Sleep Do You Need?

Most adults need to sleep 7-9 hours for the brain to operate at optimum

Your moral judgment is not the only thing that gets impaired when your brain is deprived of sleep. Your mood, libido, and ability to cope with stress also get negatively affected.5 In order to function optimally, your brain needs adequate sleep. And the sleep-related demands of your body changes with age. Most adults need to sleep 7–9 hours. Older adults (over 65 years) are recommended to sleep 7-8 hours. Children need much more sleep than adults. The National Sleep Foundation recommends the following number of hours of sleep for children:

  • Newborns (0-3 months): 14 to 17 hours
  • Infants (4-11 months): 12 to 15 hours
  • Toddlers (1-2 years): 11 to 14 hours
  • Preschoolers (3-5 years): 10 to 13 hours
  • School-aged Children (6-13 years): 9 to 11 hours
  • Teenagers (14-17 years): 8 to 10 hours
  • Young Adults (18-25 years): 7 to 9 hours

Due to stress and varied forms of entertainment available now, most people don’t get the sleep they actually need. If you haven’t slept enough over a long period, you start to build a “sleep debt.” You can “catch up” on lost sleep to reduce the effects of sleep deprivation, but this may not be adequate.6 You need to get into the routine of sleeping well each night to get physically and mentally healthy.