Those of us who live in regions that observe Daylight Saving Time (DST) re-set our clocks twice a year, moving them back in the fall and forward in the spring. This year, we spring forward on Sunday, March 12, meaning we'll give up one hour of Sunday sads for an extra hour of sunlight. While I'm a big fan of DST, many oppose the practice — and they have a solid case against it.
DST doesn't actually conserve much energy, which is why we adopted it in the first place. What's more, clock-fiddling throws off our circadian patterns, at least temporarily. Springing forward, studies suggest, robs us of 40 minutes of sleep for at least one night. So, a lot of people are a little sleep-deprived the next day, aka "Sleepy Monday." Such widespread sleep loss has been linked to undesirable trends including a post-DST uptick in car accidents. And a recent study suggests that Sleepy Monday is also a day for disproportionately harsh legal punishment: On this day of (nearly) national tiredness, judges hand out criminal sentences 5 percent longer than on other Mondays, according to researchers at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business.
The underlying idea is that sleep-deprived judges punish (the same) transgressive behavior more severely than well-slept arbiters of law. Why? Well, sleep-deprived people often frame situations in a negative light and struggle with objectivity: In some studies, sleep-deprived people have shown a higher-than-normal tendency to interpret ambiguous or neutral cues (e.g., resting faces) as negative, suggesting an overactive threat-detection system. Supporting these findings, the sleep-deprived brain has shown decreased activity between the amgydala (the neural alarm bell) and the prefrontal cortex (the center for rational thought), meaning there's no voice of reason to rein in kneejerk emotions and hasty conclusions.
Also, other research points to factors that sway judicial decisions but are unrelated to the cases themselves. For instance, one study found that judges' rate of approving parole requests dropped from 65 percent at the beginning of the day to nearly zero percent before food breaks, and then jumped back up once their honors' bellies were full.
To determine if and how Sleepy Monday punishment deviates from the norm, researchers looked at the length of imprisonment for criminal sentences handed out between 1992 and 2003 on Sleepy Monday, as well on the previous and subsequent Mondays. In all, they analyzed almost 4,000 cases. They controlled for other factors that might affect sentencing, including criminal history, type of offense and defendant demographics.
They also analyzed sentences handed out on other, non-holiday Mondays in the year, as well as during the rest of the post-DST week. Overall, Sleepy Monday emerged as an outlier in terms of sentencing severity. Researchers also noted a pattern of harsher Friday sentences, which they attributed to the accumulation of sleep loss over the course of the week.
The results "demonstrated that even a small amount of sleep deprivation can disturb judges' decisions on punishments." It's possible, researchers wrote, that the (nearly) nationwide practice of DST "unexpectedly undermines the justice system."
While researchers did take measures to minimize the influence of other factors that might affect sentencing, they still have some work to do to show, with certainty, that Sleepy Monday punishments are harsher because judges are underslept. But, their work jibes with existing research on the role of sleep in criminal justice. Other studies, for instance, have explored the way sleep deprivation breeds false confessions and leaves witnesses vulnerable to false recall. And there's plenty more to explore: Does exhaustion affect how jurors weigh facts, or how forensic scientists match fingerprints (an area that notoriously suffers from unconscious bias)?
Originally published in Feb. 2017