Some decisions are so consequential that the average person is forbidden from making them. To decide the treatment for another person’s disease, or the penalty for a criminal defendant, you need to go through years of careful training and education. As a doctor, you cannot afford to prescribe the wrong drug for a patient’s symptoms. And as a judge, you cannot afford to imprison an innocent person. We all know that these kinds of errors must happen occasionally. But at the same time, we hold certain professions to a higher standard. For that reason, it can often be a shock to discover those role models just being human.
When we are deprived of sleep for a day or two, all of us are capable of making some poor decisions. Our memory and attention capacities take a hit, so our work during the day is likely to be less effective. A lack of sleep increases the chances of a lapse in concentration, which can be disastrous when driving or using dangerous tools. But even outside immediate physical dangers, there may be major ethical consequences to being tired.
Judges often have to try many cases across their day. Their job may not be physically strenuous, but their high mental burden is bound to be exhausting, as I’ve previously described. If judges are as human as the rest of us, you might expect to see their decision-making change in line with their sleep patterns.
If you wanted to investigate the effects of sleep deprivation on real-world legal decision-making, it probably wouldn’t be sensible to ask a group of judges to go without sleep for a day. However, researchers at the University of Washington and University of Virginia thought of a clever way to test the idea without getting in the way of normal judicial proceedings. They made use of a natural change we all go through during the transition to daylight saving time in the spring: on Sunday, we turn our clocks forward and miss one valuable hour of peaceful sleep.
The researchers analyzed court sentences for US citizens between 1992–2003, and examined how long defendants were locked away for on the Monday after a clock change (“sleepy Monday”) compared to a typical Monday. Alarmingly, they found that sentences were 5% longer overall on sleepy Mondays.
You might find the results above surprising. Could a single hour of sleep really make such a difference? Some researchers are indeed disputing the extent of these sleep deprivation effects among judges. But to be clear, there does seem to be a difference between 6–7 hours of sleep and 7–8 hours of sleep when it comes to general health. During the Sleep Duration Consensus Conference in 2015, 15 experts in the field of sleep science reviewed all available evidence and voted on exactly how much we should be sleeping each night. The panel reached a consensus suggesting that 7–8 or 8–9 hours of sleep a night was ideal for optimal health, but 6–7 hours crossed into the suboptimal range.
Judges aren’t the only people who need to worry about sleep. The performance of medical professionals also suffers when they are bleary-eyed. As sleep loss increases, surgeons make more mistakes and are slower to perform particular tasks in a surgery simulation. The demanding working conditions and long shifts in many of the world’s healthcare systems may not be good for patients, or for the people trying to save their lives.
We don’t yet fully understand everything that goes on during sleep, or even the reasons why we sleep, but we know that we struggle without it. The effects of sleep loss are similar to the effects of alcohol intoxication. When researchers measured the hand-eye coordination of volunteers following either a few drinks or a night of no sleep, they found that 17 hours of sleep deprivation mimicked the performance problems of a 0.05% blood alcohol concentration. Staying awake for 24 hours was similar to a 0.1% blood alcohol concentration. Keep in mind that the legal alcohol limit for driving in the US is 0.08%. The more sleep we lose, the more drunkenly we behave.
Food deprivation may be analogous to sleep deprivation when it comes to the quality of our decision-making. All of us get a little short-tempered and miserable when we feel hungry. Skipping lunch is not a popular proposition in my household. The feeling of frustrated hunger is so widespread that the world has come up with a dedicated word for it: “hangry”, a portmanteau of hungry and angry.
A hangry judge may be the last thing you want to see if you’re ever in court hoping for parole. Researchers analyzed the decisions of judges in Israel depending on when a parole hearing took place during the day. In these cases, judges had two options for their conclusions: “yes, parole is granted” or “no, go back to your cell”. The hearings took place in one of three daily sessions, each session separated by a break where the judges could grab some food and drink.
The researchers found that decisions to grant parole in favor of prisoners declined steadily between the start and end time of a session. And this was not just a minor effect we can easily ignore. Favorable rulings were at around 65% at the start of a session when the judge was feeling happy and refreshed, and declined to almost 0% just before the break. Straight after the refreshment break, the rate abruptly jumped back up to approximately 65%. There may be accompanying variables in addition to hunger that explain this pattern, but nobody in their right mind could have predicted such a dramatic effect before seeing this data.
In these judicial cases, the decision to avoidgranting parole is essentially a decision to keep things as they already are. Granting parole would mean changing the status quo and releasing the prisoner. It may be that this burden is too much for a hangry judge to think about. When we are tired and struggling to focus because the only thing on our mind is food, we may be naturally drawn to the least dramatic option; the option least likely to get us in trouble if we make a mistake. When we are refreshed, happy, and comfortable, we can better weigh up the pros and cons of a problem in a bid to make the fairest and most rational decisions we can.
Next time you feel a little frustrated with someone, or you see them looking a little skittish, consider whether hunger or fatigue could have something to do with it. We have an overwhelming tendency to assume that when a stranger is unfriendly to us, it’s because they are a terrible person. But this bias may be irrational, because we are all capable of being a little mean on a bad day.
With some careful attention to the real influences underlying our own behavior and judgment, we can make better decisions when it matters. And with greater generosity in how we read other folks’ motivations, we can develop a more compassionate attitude toward the people around us.