Does Being Sleep-Deprived Make Us Irrationally Optimistic About Money?

Researchers at Duke University studied healthy volunteers and found that the less the participants slept, the more likely they were to focus on potential gains and ignore potential risks.
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We make hundreds, even thousands of decisions every day. Some are easy (like what to have for breakfast, or what to wear to work), while some are much harder (like how to spend money or educate our children). We know that without a good night's sleep, making those tough decisions is even more difficult, though everyone from business executives to politicians often makes important decisions on too little sleep.

The one place we really should try to make sure we have a good night's sleep before we make any decisions is Las Vegas -- or any casino, for that matter. A new study suggests that beyond leading to poor decision making, sleep deprivation actually makes us more optimistic in our judgments, particularly those about money. Researchers at Duke University studied healthy volunteers as they underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and found that the less the participants slept, the more likely they were to focus on potential gains and ignore potential risks.

It isn't that we're just too tired to make the right choice; sleep deprivation actually changes the way that our brains process information. Lack of sleep makes us:

  • More sensitive to positive outcomes

  • More likely to pay attention to the upside
  • Less aware of possible negative outcomes, making it easy to ignore the possibility of losing
  • This could be why when people stay up all night playing cards and gambling, they take crazy risks that they shouldn't take, and maybe wouldn't take if they were well rested! This could also hold true for people staying up all night on online gaming sites: the later you stay up, the more focused you become on the possibility of winning big (and less focused on the possibility of losing big). It also explains why casinos often have flashing lights, free alcohol, and late hours -- they are all designed to make you stay longer and as you become more and more sleep deprived, make bigger and riskier gambles.

    Trying to make important decisions without a good night's sleep could lead to many problems:

    • Bad mood, which can lead to poorer decisions and even worse mood

  • An inability to think clearly and rationally
  • Abuse of caffeine
  • Preference for a decision that looks like it will lead to financial gains, no matter how risky it may be
  • This optimism in judgment is not limited to money; the researchers in the study write that doctors and medical residents who work long hours are more likely to make mistakes, and it's easy to see how making decisions that look positive despite the risks could be problematic for lawyers, bankers and those in the military. The truth is that no good decision can be made by anyone with that much sleep deprivation.

    Do you consider how much sleep you've gotten before you make important decisions? Having a clear and well-rested head is important for any big budgeting decision you make -- and for those trips to Vegas. Want to avoid losing it all? Try resting up before you place your bet or make that big decision. Get the rest you need and make sure your optimism is well founded.

    Sweet dreams,
    Michael J. Breus, Ph.D.
    The Sleep Doctor™
    "Everything you do, you do better with a good night's sleep"™

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