Sleep deprived? This study finds you shouldn't be asking for advice

We know not getting enough sleep is bad for us, this study gives us yet another reason to get a few more hours in.

Delegates at an international climate change meeting catch up on sleep.(OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images)

We all know that being sleep deprived is terrible for us. It can cause weight gain, depression, fatigue, confusion, higher blood pressure, a slew of other terrible symptoms, and most of us just don’t feel as good when we haven’t gotten enough sleep.


While the fact that we don’t make our best decisions while sleep deprived is common knowledge, a group of European psychologists has delved into how sleep deprivation affects our ability to correct for this fact. Particularly, how we respond to advice. In a study published in Nature, they show that we might all want to get a few more hours of sleep in before we make a major decision. 

The experiment

The experiment was designed to determine both how badly people’s cognitive abilities were affected on a quantitative task by sleep deprivation and to determine how willing they would be to take advice of both high and dubious quality. 

The participants in the study were randomly sorted into one of two groups of sleep deprivation levels, either they would get a full night’s sleep or be told to stay up for 24 hours straight, and then into another group to see if they would be given an expert advisor or a passable one. The subjects who were placed into the sleep deprivation group were observed all night to assure they didn’t cheat. 

The subjects would then be asked to rate their current level of sluggishness before answering questions about the distances between European cities. They were given two cities and asked to estimate the distance between them. 

After guessing, they were offered the chance to hear from an adviser who would provide their guess of how far apart the cities were. Of the two advisors, one of them was rated “highly competent” and the other “medium competent” regarding their estimates. The competency of the advisor was known to the test subject when they received the advice. The subjects were then able to change their guess from before based on the information they were given if they felt like it.

The results 

As you might expect, the sleep-deprived subjects were worse at estimating the distances between cities than their well-rested peers. As the authors hypothesized, they also took more advice as a result of their awareness of how poorly they were functioning.

But, in an interesting turn, the sleep-deprived subjects didn’t seem to mind when they knew the advice was only of medium quality. While both groups of test subjects were inclined to alter their estimates when given an expert opinion at a similar rate, the sleep-deprived subjects took the advice of the so-so advisor at a higher rate than the well-rested ones despite knowing that the advice was of lackluster quality.

These findings are supported by previous studies that show people are aware of their reduced cognitive ability caused by sleep deprivation and suffer reduced self-confidence as a result. The authors speculate that both factors played into these results.

What can I learn from this?

When you’re sleep deprived, you’re more likely to take advice. While this can be good when you’re presented with a competent advisor, it worryingly also means that you’re more likely to take lower quality advice even if you know the source is unreliable.

The authors also mention how very many major decisions are made by sleep-deprived leaders taking advice right before a deadline. If this study is correct, a lot of the modern world just started to make a lot more sense. 

Were there any problems with the study?

Two grains of salt are needed here. The experiment was done with a small number of people, and all of them were undergraduate students, the favored, slightly unreliable, guinea pigs of university studies since time immortal. While the results of the study can be generalized, this is a relatively small sample size which over samples young people, which may require that more research to be done to confirm the results.

Secondly, even while the distance estimates given by the inferior advisor were off by as much as 60%, on small scales these differences can seem feasible. There was no test of if the sleep-deprived people would take the sage advice of a person who was doubling the distances between major European cities or suggesting Paris and Berlin were 10 miles apart. 

Sleep deprivation has reached epidemic levels, and if this study is correct, poor decisions might come from both a lack of sleep and cut-rate advice. On a more personal level, we might be encouraged to make choices we wouldn’t make when rested by well-meaning friends who we turn to for advice when we know we need a second opinion. 

So be sure to get a good night’s sleep in before you have to make a major decision. But then again, maybe you should take a nap before deciding what to make of this study.  

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Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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