Sleep Loss Leads to Altruism Decline
A year ago, I wrote an article (“Assessing Risks of Wireless Radiation Exposure“) about scientists discovering a link between exposure to wireless radiation and sleep disorders. Now, a team of four psychologists and neuroscientists led by Eti Ben Simon has published a paper that demonstrates a link between sleep loss and the withdrawal of altruism.1
One of the distinguishing characteristics of humans compared to all other animals is the degree to which humans help each other and care for one another. This feature was and continues to be a crucial factor in the development of civilization.
Altruism is the moral practice of sacrificing one’s material wealth, labor, and/or time to meet the needs, welfare, or happiness of other humans or animals. Altruism is evident across all societal strata. It’s ubiquitously seen at the family level where parents will sacrifice to care for and educate their children, siblings will assist other siblings that are less fortunate, and where younger members of a family will care for the elderly. It’s observed in towns and cities where people will donate their own blood to help strangers in hospitals. At national and international levels people will altruistically give money and donate their labor and skills to help those who’ve been devastated by natural disasters. The World Giving Index reports that the majority of adults living in the United States, Europe, and Asia donate to a charity or provide help for a stranger on a monthly basis.2
Altruism is an expression of free will. A question of great interest to sociologists and psychologists is, what are the factors that determine whether or not humans choose to help one another? One factor investigated by Ben Simon’s team was the role sleep loss plays in reducing altruistic expressions.
Ben Simon and her colleagues designed three experiments: one at an individual level, a second at a group level, and a third at a national level. At the individual level, they tested 24 healthy adult participants in which they measured the participants’ altruistic behavior after one night’s sleep compared with after one night of sleep deprivation. In the second study, 136 individuals that were all part of the same group completed helping questionnaires and sleep diaries for four consecutive days where the individuals were free to choose how many hours of sleep they got per night.
The impact of sleep loss was consistent across both studies. About 78% of participants experiencing sleep loss demonstrated a substantial reduction in their desire to help others. Changes in mood among the participants or in the effort needed to help others did show measurable effects on the desire to help others, but did not reduce the impact of sleep loss. Functional MRI brain scans performed on the 24 participants in the first study showed—under sleep deprivation—a reduction in task-evoked brain activity within the brain’s social cognition network (medial prefrontal cortex, mid and superior temporal sulcus, temporal-parietal junction, and the precuneus).
Unexpectedly, for the first two studies, Ben Simon’s team noticed that the withdrawal from helping others due to sleep loss had little correlation with the familiarity of the people being helped. The withdrawal was the same whether the circumstance involved helping a relative or friend or helping a complete stranger. That is, the impact of sleep loss appears to be broad and indiscriminate.
Ben Simon’s team did observe a consistent correlation between the degree of sleep loss and the reduction in the desire to help others. The greater the sleep loss, the greater the reduction in the desire to help others. They also noted that the greater the decrease in sleep quality, the greater the reduction in the desire to help others.
In the third experiment, Ben Simon’s team determined the impact of one hour of lost sleep opportunity resulting from the transition from Standard Time (ST) to Daylight Saving Time (DST). Through an analysis of over 3 million charitable donations made in the United States between 2001 and 2016, they found that the level of donations during the 4 weeks following the transition to DST was substantially less than the level during the 4 weeks previous to the transition to DST. The difference was a 13% reduction in total money donated. The money donated during the 24 hours following the transition to DST was 45% less than the daily average over the 4 weeks previous to the DST transition.
Sleep Loss Conclusions
Ben Simon and her colleagues established that for humans insufficient sleep, both quantity and quality, is a degrading influence on helping other people. It’s a degrading force at all societal levels: individual, group, and national. Ben Simon’s team also demonstrated that any impairment to the brain’s social cognition network will degrade altruistic behavior.
Previous studies had shown that people living in rural regions manifest altruistic behavior at a substantially higher level than people living in large cities.3 In the introduction to their paper, Ben Simon’s team noted that charitable giving in the United States in 2019 amounted to $450 billion, or 5.5% of the US gross domestic product. Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2019, giving to charities totaled only 10.6 billion pounds or 0.3% of the UK gross domestic product.
Why is charitable giving in the UK so much lower than it is in the US? Part of the reason is that proportionally many more Britons live in big cities than do Americans. Britons may be more sleep deprived than Americans, although there are no studies suggesting such a deficit. What is well established is that Americans give much more to their churches ($131 billion) than do Britons ($1.5 billion).4 It’s also well established that Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, donate a much higher percentage of their wealth to charitable causes than do non-Christians. Only 9.1% of Britons claim to attend church weekly compared with 31% of Americans. It appears that worldview is a more significant factor than sleep in predicting altruistic behavior.
More in-depth studies on the fundamental causes of altruism need to be done. I predict that such studies will affirm what the Bible teaches about altruism. Altruism is taught throughout the Scriptures and Jesus modeled it perfectly in the New Testament.
When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied (Deuteronomy 26:12).
For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45).
Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world (James 1:27).
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Philippians 2:3–4).
- Eti Ben Simon et al., “Sleep Loss Leads to the Withdrawal of Human Helping Across Individuals, Groups, and Large-Scale Societies,” PLOS Biology 20, no. 8 (August 23, 2022): id. e3001733, doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.3001733.
- Charities Aid Foundation, CAF World Giving Index 2018; A Global View of Giving Trends (October 2018), accessed October 7, 2022, https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-publications/caf_wgi2018_report_webnopw_2379a_261018.pdf?sfvrsn=c28e9140_4.
- Robert V. Levine, Ara Norenzayan, and Karen Philbrick, “Cross-Cultural Differences in Helping Strangers,” Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology 32, no. 5 (September 2001): 543–560, doi:10.1177/0022022101032005002.
- Qgive Team, Giving USA 2021 Report: Charitable Giving Trends, accessed October 7, 2022, https://www.qgiv.com/blog/giving-usa-2021/; Charities Aid Foundation, Charities Aid Foundation UK Giving Report 2021, accessed October 7, 2022, https://www.cafonline.org/docs/default-source/about-us-research/uk_giving_report_2021.pdf.