Med thumb sleep deprived convincing

Originally published in April 2016


What's fueling Donald Trump and his signature brand of bombast? Sleep deprivation, says us. Trump claims he rests his hot-head for just a few hours each night because he's among the one or two percent of humans who are natural "short-sleepers." Likely story. A supercut of Trump's campaign-trail appearances could be a PSA for prioritizing sleep — with his thin-skinned nature, indifference towards facts and markedly short attention span, The Donald reeks of a Zzzs deficiency. And according to a new study, his real-men-don't-sleep approach to life is probably making him a glutton for misguided advice. Sleep-deprived people, the study found, are more likely than their well-rested counterparts to accept advice while making decisions — and they don't care who's handing out the wisdom. 

The notion that under-slept people soak up advice makes sense based on the sleep-research landscape. Studies have shown that sleep-deprived people perform worse on cognitive tasks but that they're aware of their dulled mental faculties. And, in general, people are more likely to take advice about skills or knowledge areas in which they report low-self confidence. Finally, underslept people tend to be easily influenced. In one study, for example, participants who pulled one all-nighter exhibited a tendency to believe false accounts of events they'd seen with their own eyes. Given these findings, researchers from the University of Erfurt reasoned that low confidence and high susceptibility to outside input make sleep-deprived people likely to take advice as a way of compensating for cognitive deficits. 

In other words, the sleep-deprived group was more likely to heed the advice of the anonymous sources.

So, researchers ran an experiment to test their prediction. Ninety-two German university students split into two groups. Roughly half stayed up for 24 hours and the remainder got a good night's rest, as verified by wristband trackers. Then, everyone completed a task in which they estimated distances between pairs of European cities, e.g., Paris and Amsterdam.

For each pair of cities, participants made initial estimates without any help. Then, after submitting their answers, participants received advice from sources about whom they were only told one thing: How well they'd done on a similar distance-estimation task. Equipped with sources' suggested estimates, participants played a second round of everyone's favorite game, "guess the distance between two points." 

Compared to the well-rested group, sleep-deprived participants were slightly less accurate in their initial estimates. But, they were more likely to revise their follow-up guesses according to suggestions from sources. 

This is good news, wrote study authors. "Although sleep deprivation typically impairs decision making, sleep-deprived individuals are more open to taking advice which might even allow them to catch up with well-rested decision makers." In other words, sleep-deprived people can compensate for their own shoddy decision-making abilities by relying on outside counsel. 

Underslept participants did not favor advice from the most-qualified sources.

That is, if they take advice from trustworthy people. To the researchers' surprise, that wasn't necessarily the case. Underslept participants did not favor advice from the most-qualified sources. Instead, they were more likely to tweak estimates based on advice from sources who'd done fine, but not astoundingly well, on their own distance-estimation tasks. Remember, participants knew exactly how well the advice-givers had performed, so they actively chose to follow advice from B-level sources, and researchers aren't sure why. Regardless, they concluded that their study "emphasizes the importance for [sleep-deprived] politicians to have access to highly competent and reliable advisors in times of reduced sleep."

Understandably, the German study authors aren't too focused on American politics and chose the EU Greece bailout as their real-world example of over-tired politicians making big decisions.

But we've got tired Trump and his team of advisors no one's heard of