Why Underslept People Cheat You

How much sleep does a person need in order to be more ethical? At least 6 hours, new research suggests. Here’s what that means for you and your staff.

Why Underslept People Cheat You

Fudging numbers, taking colleagues’ credit, neglecting to bring forth important information: Temptations to cheat abound in our working lives. Where do these lapses come from? New research suggests its all in your head. Or, rather, the nutrients within it.


“Self-control varies over time within the same person,” management professor Christopher M. Barnes writes for Harvard Business Review. “Physiologically, self-control occurs largely in the pre-frontal cortex region of the human brain, and uses glucose as a fuel. The act of using self-control draws upon this fuel, which exhausts the fuel.”

As we’ve noted, you have only so much mental energy during a day. From what Barnes’s research suggests, the amount of sleep you get predicts the discipline your body can produce.

Why? Sleep deprivation depletes the glucose level in your pre-frontal cortex, Barnes writes. This has consequences for your decision-making: If you don’t get enough sleep, you leave your self-control engine running on empty. If you do get enough sleep, you restore that fuel base.

Better rest, better behavior?

Interestingly, small differences in mattress time predict different behaviors. Barnes says that in one study he conducted, there was only a difference of 22 minutes in people who cheated versus those who did not. (Good argument for the snooze button, right?).

As well, other research has shown that people who slept for under six hours were more likely to cheat than those that got at least six–and Barnes reports that even natural variations in sleep, like if you range between 6.5 and 8.5 hours per night, are enough to predict different, possibly unethical behavior, the next day.


What to do about sleep

“Organizations need to give sleep more respect,” Barnes writes. “Executives and managers should keep in mind that the more they push employees to work late, come to the office early, and answer emails and calls at all hours, the more they invite unethical behavior to creep in.”

As Sleeping With Your Smartphone author and Harvard Business Scholl professor Leslie Perlow once told us, getting your office to admire downtime demands rewiring the signaling system: Cheer when people report that they unplugged last night or over the weekend, slap their wrist when they don’t.

But if you’re not in a management position, you can still become a productive sleeper and, it seems, a more ethical person: Nap hard, build nighttime rituals, and wear yourself out. This, we infer, will stave off blunder-inviting decision fatigue.

Sleep-Deprived People Are More Likely to Cheat

[Hat tip: Annie Murphy Paul]

[Image: Flickr user Tambako the Jaguar]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.